SARASOTA -- All that potential shoppers want to know about the Mall at University Town Center is what stores will be coming when the doors open in 2014.
The newly hired general manager Octavio Ortiz hears that question frequently -- and sometimes hears some surprising news himself.
"I was talking to a lady and she was telling me all the stores and I was like, really?" Ortiz said, smiling.
While steel beams are beginning to define the Mall at University Town Center, the mall's staff is working behind the scenes to make sure everything is in place when the mall opens Oct. 16, 2014.
One of the latest moves is the hiring of Ortiz, who is going to be the man in charge of the $315 million mall, working to pull together the lease commitments, special events, sponsorships and contracts as he puts his
own team in place to oversee about 115 stores at the high-end regional mall. It's being managed by Michigan-based Taubman Centers through a partnership with Benderson Development.
Ortiz will be speaking with Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight soon about plans for traffic control for the opening; he needs to hire marketing and facilities managers; he'll start speaking engagements in the community in October, fitting in Chamber of Commerce events in Sarasota and Manatee counties; and next week he'll meet with area businesses and institutions for sponsorships.
"Everybody's excited about this mall," Ortiz said. "It's the neatest thing coming to this market. Everybody can't wait, and that's really unique. There really hasn't been anything negative I've heard about the shopping center."
Ortiz has a wealth of experience with regional destination malls, including Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise. He moved to Taubman where for the past seven years he was the general manager at The Shops at Willow Bend in suburban Dallas.
"I originally liked being in Florida, and my wife grew up in the Fort Lauderdale area," said Ortiz, who has a bachelor's degree in marketing/management from Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and an associate's degree in fashion merchandising from Art Institute of Houston. "For us, we really missed it."
Ortiz, a Houston native, will make his home at Lakewood Ranch, which reminds him of the master-planned Parkland community near Coral Springs. His move from Texas was the easy part, with a home already built that he's moving into this week. It's the mall that he will be occupied with.
Shop 'til you drop
While Taubman announced a year ago that Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Dillard's would come, the rest of the stores remain under wraps, as the mall will announce more tenants in groupings leading up to the opening, said Karen Mac Donald, spokeswoman for Taubman.
By the end of the year, more stores will be announced, and lease signing could take place up until days before the grand opening. More than half of the stores will be new to the Manatee-Sarasota market, Mac Donald said.
Anything that hasn't been confirmed by Taubman or an individual retailer is pure rumor and speculation. Ortiz cannot even discuss how many leases have been signed for the space. Taubman is throwing out tease buzz words, saying that the mall will have a mix of "luxury and fashion-focused retailers with popular favorites and a children's play area."
The mall's tenant base is built from the anchors out, Mac Donald said.
"You've got to have commitments from your anchors before you can go forward," she said. A fourth anchor has yet to be named.
Ortiz and Taubman's team have scouted the Ellenton Premium Outlets, Westfield-owned Southgate and Sarasota Square Malls as well as Westfield Brandon, plus St. Armand's Circle and Lakewood Ranch Main Street to get a feel for the market. Given those options, he sees there's still a lot of retail and dining to offer the region.
"We were amazed it was so under-retailed," Ortiz said. "We started looking at it up-close, and this is going to be a fabulous place."
A leasing kick-off through Taubman strategizes the leasing according to categories, with wish lists and targets, Mac Donald said.
Taubman has also scouted reader comments.
The Bradenton Herald asked readers in May what stores the community wanted to have, and after the tremendous response, shared the list with Mac Donald. The top requests include Cheesecake Factory, Apple store, Nordstrom, DSW and Sephora, and readers threw in wild card requests like a neon bowling alley, similar to Lucky Strike.
"Everybody who contacted me -- through you or directly -- I shared those with leasing," Mac Donald told the Herald on Wednesday. "I'm sure some of those names were on the list, and some of those names weren't and gave them new ideas. They approached a retailer or restaurant to find out what their plans are."
Some reader suggestions did include repeat stores in the area and "really, really high-end stores that maybe the retailer knows they couldn't make it with the number of people," Mac Donald said.
Taubman will hold out for the right retailer, even in the days leading up to the opening.
"The one thing we say, Billy Taubman in particular, is that we're not going to fill a space just to fill a space. It's too valuable," Mac Donald said. "When you do that, you lose what you're trying to create."
More than 1,000 construction jobs have been created to keep the mall on track for its opening next year despite a rainy summer, thanks to the schedule's built-in weather delays.
Macy's and Saks' spaces have been delivered and are being built by their contractors, and Dillard's will start construction on their pad on Oct. 1, Ortiz said.
Some of the features general contractor DCK Construction will build will be part of what Taubman considers a state-of-the-art mall.
The Mall at UTC will be Taubman's first mall with all LED lighting interior and exterior, Ortiz said. Using recycled water from nearby lakes is also a possibility.
For shopping convenience, the mall will feature free Wi-Fi on the property, free charging stations for electronic devices in the mall and special smartphone applications.
One of those could be used for valet parking.
"Nobody wants to wait for their car outside because it's hot here, so we're coming up with ways you can get to the valet parking attendant and say, 'I'm going to be outside in 10 minutes, please have my car waiting,'" Ortiz said.
Electric car charging is a key feature mall officials are looking to perfect, providing the right type of charger as well as constructing ones that won't corrode in Florida's weather, he said.
The parking lot is also being pre-wired in case more electric car charging stations are needed in the future.
"It's not really cost-effective to do it after the fact," Ortiz said. "We're actually doing underground utility, so if we need additional in the future, it won't be a major impact for us to do those things."
One of the more technical features will be in the ceiling.
The glass ceiling archway, which includes louvered glass, is specially made to have phased-in variations of UV protection and light blocking depending on the height of the glass on the arch, Ortiz said, to help keep the mall cool.
A mall evolved
The Mall at UTC was a stop-and-go project, with an original opening date set for 2010. Benderson owns the land the mall sits on and had partnered with Forbes Co., which was involved with the Mall at Millenia in Orlando and Taubman later joined, Mac Donald said. Taubman was brought on board for a percentage of the mall, and when the economy recovered, Forbes exited the picture and Taubman picked up the ball to get the mall rolling again.
Not only did the economy rebuild, so did Manatee-Sarasota.
"I think there's so much growth in the market, at one time it was looked at as a retirement community, and it is to a certain point, but there is so much more now," Mac Donald said.
Over time, other retail has sprung up on North Cattleman and University Parkway, and Lakewood Ranch has boomed as well to bring more residents to the region.
The rowing venue being constructed at Nathan Benderson Park will bring international athletes to the mall's backyard. The increased household income, interstate access and increased population will factor in to bringing tenants to the mall.
"I can't imagine the mall opening and not doing fabulous business," Ortiz said.
The 880,000-square-foot mall covers 73 acres, which is just a part of the 273 acres Benderson owns there. The site is planned to include housing and more commercial development on the southeast part of the property. That, coupled with the success of existing businesses along the University Parkway corridor, has helped spark business interest in the mall.
"When you look at some of the Bonefishes over there of the world, they're No. 1 within their region or the top 10 percent in Florida and that shows there is a need for additional shopping," Ortiz said.
The mall is projected to bring about 2,000 retail jobs to the area.
While grand opening events haven't been announced, don't expect a spectacle. Years ago for openings, Taubman would bring in celebrities to help with mall openings, but realized that a crowd will come on its own.
"People just want to get there and shop," Mac Donald said.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow on Twitter @ImYourChuck.