CNL Financial executive chairman James Seneff

CNL Financial executive chairman James Seneff at downtown Orlando real estate conference on May 7. (Paul Brinkmann, Orlando Sentinel / May 7, 2014)

Single-family residential markets are likely to be depressed by economic trends for the near future, said James Seneff, executive chairman of CNL Financial, at a conference in Orlando on Wednesday.

“Fewer people are buying homes… But guess what, there's an alternative to that. It's great for the apartment business,” Seneff told a crowd of business people from Central Florida’s commercial real estate industry. He also said some opportunities exist in office construction, and that downtown Orlando is poised for rapid growth.

Seneff was the keynote speaker at a conference titled “Here Comes the Sun” in downtown Orlando, hosted by University of Central Florida College of Business Administration.

 “We think interest rates are going to stay low, which is good for real estate investors. The government is on our side,” Seneff said. He added later in his speech, “Get ahead of big trends and stay with them. CNL has been involved in one thing, that’s the democratization of investing.”

He regaled the crowd for about an hour. His comments were characterized by his broad view of economics, society and finance.

He warned against growing the national debt, predicted that China will dominate the Pacific economy in the future and said he understands that “running a business is part of making a society work.”

The audience responded enthusiastically when given the change to ask Seneff questions.

“I worked for him once and I really admire him,” said Cynthia Shelton, director of investment sales for Colliers International. Shelton asked Seneff about the future of downtown Orlando, and he was only upbeat.

“We’re just at the cusp of a dramatic shift. There’s a tremendous opportunity for downtown right now with the Amway Center, the new performing arts center, SunRail and so on,” Seneff said.

Another question about the potential for crowdfunding came from Turner Swann, a master’s student at UCF and realtor at DeLand-based Swann & Associates.

“I think crowdfunding is going to become more useful. For certain real estate, there will be a way to crowd fund your project up to a dollar limit,” Seneff said.

Other speakers at the event included Thomas Chatmon, executive director of Downtown Orlando. Chatmon gave a summary of $2.5 billion in projects under way downtown, including the Men’s Service Center, an effort by the city of Orlando and Orange County to address panhandling, the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, and ongoing Creative Village program.

In a panel discussion, Stephen Brandon of Orlando-based investment firm Brandon Partners said Orlando has natural growth but “we need to do a better job getting corporate relocations here and getting a higher wage.”

Brandon said many retail malls in the Orlando area are now obsolete and “should be torn up to grow vegetables or something.”