Like clockwork, when the sun sets and Shabbat comes to an end, Pikesville’s Club Centre comes alive.
Home to such kosher establishments as Mama Leah’s Pizza and Goldberg’s New York Bagels, Club Centre looks more like a nightclub than a shopping center on Saturday evenings, with hundreds of friends and family members gathering for fun and a late bite.
But 11 years ago, before America’s Realty LLC purchased the complex, the scene was quite different.
“When we bought the center it had 17 vacancies, and today it’s one of the few shopping centers you will see that is 100 percent leased,” says Steve Verstandig, senior vice president of America’s Realty LLC. “One of the best feelings is when I drop my daughter off at Beth Tfiloh for school and see a picture of Club Centre hanging in the building. What we have done has become intertwined in the community, and our shopping centers are part of everyone’s daily lives.”
Founded in 1981 by Steve’s father, Carl Verstandig, the Pikesville-based America’s Realty buys defunct shopping centers with large vacancies around the nation. With more than 300 centers and approximately 13,000 tenants in 43 states, America’s Realty is one of the largest independently owned developers in the United States.
“We have a niche,” says Carl Verstandig, president and CEO of America’s Realty. “Wherever we are in the country, we want to have the cheapest rent factor so we can have full occupancy. We aren’t the high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord + Taylor, but rather blue collar-oriented across the board with a focus on ma-and-pa service-oriented businesses.”
Carl Verstandig is no stranger to family business or the service industry. His parents, who were Holocaust survivors, moved to New York in 1947. The family — Carl, his sister and parents — lived in a one-bedroom apartment above a toy store, and his father worked in a belt factory.
They moved to Baltimore when Carl was 6, and his parents bought a small neighborhood grocery store on Aiken Street, with the family living above the store. “My family moved to Baltimore because my mother’s relatives lived here, owned the grocery store and said my parents could be self-employed here,” says Carl, now 65. “We lived on top of that store for 12 years, and as a kid I would work at the store after school. Being Holocaust survivors, my parents made sure to teach us that family was what mattered and our Jewish heritage was the most important thing in the world.”
Eventually, the family moved to Pikesville, but Carl’s parents continued driving downtown to work at the grocery store until a robbery in 1972 in which Carl’s father was shot. A few years later, Carl and a few partners started their own grocery business, opening Kash and Karry, Warehouse Food Markets and Food Town. The business started with a small store and grew to 35 locations within the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
“After my father recovered from his gunshot wound, he came to work with me at Kash and Karry,” recalls Carl. “Now, working with my son enhances what I was taught as a kid, which is family comes first. Working with my son is a pleasure and brings back memories of me working with my dad.”
Carl sold the grocery stores in 1986 and began his real estate venture, buying 20 vacant 7-Eleven buildings. That small portfolio has since grown into a $1.5 billion company.
“My father has set the bar high,” says Steve, 36. “I’m proud of what he has accomplished. He has taught me a work ethic but also instilled in me that family comes first.”
Despite his father’s success, Steve wanted to earn his position at America’s Realty, as well as the respect of those in the real estate industry. Before working with his father, Steve started a company called Citywide Properties LLC, which manages and leases shopping centers as well as works to renovate and lease historic commercial properties.
“I didn’t want people to think I was given anything,” says Steve, who is in charge of leasing and operations for America’s Realty. “I have since taken what I learned with my company and applied it to my father’s shopping centers. You don’t need higher-end tenants to be successful. You need the tenants that fill the need of the local community.”
With that formula in mind, Steve has worked to lease their shopping centers to both independently owned businesses like Bubala Indoor Playground, Masada Tactical and Amber Room Day Spa, as well as such chains as Food Mart, Kmart and Dollar Tree, to name a few.
America’s Realty is currently revamping Kings Point Square in Randallstown, investing millions of dollars to redevelop the strip mall.
“We plant the seed, which in this case is the businesses, and then we watch them flourish,” says Steve. “Seeing vacant spaces come to life excites me, and the fact I can do that in my own backyard is exciting. One of our biggest successes is seeing our tenants grow with us. This is more than a job; it’s our lifestyle. My father lives and breathes what he does, and I am the same way.”