The annual forecasting conference hosted by the Maine Real Estate and Development Association is always a gold mine of news leads. Held last week in Portland, the conference brought together hundreds of people who make their living in Maine’s development world: real estate brokers, of course, but also bankers, lawyers, accountants, builders and the related trades that support them.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering about since:

RETAIL AND RELIGION

Hobby Lobby just finished its second store in Maine and others are on their way. Chick-fil-A is expected to enter the Maine market this year.

Both companies made headlines in the past two years for stepping into an arena where the religious beliefs of corporate owners challenged workplace rights and operations. Hobby Lobby founders David and Barbara Green successfully challenged a lower court ruling that forced them to include certain contraceptives that they believed could terminate a pregnancy in their company’s health insurance plan. The June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which supported the Greens, was considered a strike for religious freedom by some and a strike against civil liberties by others.

Likewise, Chick-fil-A was in the eye of a media storm in 2012 when its CEO, Dan Cathy, stated that the company supports traditional marriage and opposed same-sex marriage – a position it backed with millions in contributions to nonprofits battling legal recognition of gay marriage. The announcement prompted pickets outside their franchises nationally.

Having come of age when the adage “the personal is political” was popular, I will watch with interest what happens to these two chains. My guess is there will be some political hay made, but whether they stay and thrive in Maine will come down to simple bottom-line economics. Hobby Lobby has been growing exponentially, now reaching 600 stores, reporting sales of $3.3 billion last year and earning the No. 138 spot on the Forbes list of America’s largest companies.

Cathy, in a widely publicized reversal made last year, said he’d become “wiser” and wants gays to feel welcome in his franchises, which last year edged out KFC as the country’s largest chicken-based fast-food company. The company is embarking on a strategy to grow in urban areas around the country. Last year’s sales topped $5 billion.

Stay tuned.

THE AURA OF MUNJOY HILL

One of the most interesting comparisons presented at the conference came from broker Brit Vitalius in his forecast of the multi-family sector.

One of his slides showed a comparison of two Portland properties: a three-unit in the Deering neighborhood and a similarly sized unit on Munjoy Hill.

The Munjoy Hill building had been recently renovated and featured parking for two vehicles. The Deering unit was in fair condition with parking for more than four vehicles. The Deering building sold for $280,000; the Munjoy Hill for $485,000.

“Munjoy Hill reigns,” Vitalius said to the crowd, noting that quality and location are exceeding rational adjustments. Although the Munjoy Hill building was in better shape, he was at a loss to explain the $200,000 difference in roughly similar properties.

TAX EXCHANGES REBOUNDING

Other trends to watch: Investors are tapping 1031 tax exchanges again to buy and sell property. The tax exchange allows an investor to sell a property and reinvest the proceeds in a new building and defer all capital gains. They fell out of favor during the housing bust, but are gaining ground again because of the promise of better returns and the opportunity to expand an investor’s portfolio without incurring a lot of additional risk.

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Carol Coultas, business editor, can be contacted at 791-6460 or at:

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