DeSoto Square mall's reputation has experts, residents thinking it's time for something new

Herald Staff WritersJune 30, 2014 

MANATEE -- Local residents say they aren't overly concerned with DeSoto Square mall remaining a shopping center, as long as it's a productive property.

The mall's owners, Mason Asset Management, have listed the 58.5-acre property up for auction starting July 28, with a starting bid of $9 million, the Herald reported Sunday.

The Mall at University Town Center, somewhat considered competition for DeSoto Square, will open in October.

DeSoto Square's owners bought the property for $25 million back in November 2012, before construction on the Mall at University Town Center was started. At the height of the real estate boom in 2004, DeSoto Square was valued at $80.2 million, property records show.

Many Bradenton area residents said Monday they wouldn't mind new owners turning the property into something besides a shopping center, though none offered up concrete ideas.

Their main concern is that the property become more safe and productive.

"We've done without it being a viable mall for so long that I don't think we'll miss it," said Brett James, who has lived in the area for 38 years. "It just doesn't seem like it's a safe place to go anymore, with all of the crimes we hear going on there."

Safety issues a concern

Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, said he believes the safety issues are more a matter of perception with the public. While there are crimes there, Bristow said they're isolated incidents, and deputies are not called there constantly.

The most recent reported incident at DeSoto Square happened overnight Friday when two burglars broke into the mall, attempting to steal jewelry from a kiosk. Other incidents in the last three years include several robberies in the parking lot for purses, cash or necklaces.

"Security at retail is huge," said Mark Gilbert, executive vice president of Capital Markets Group for Cushman & Wakefield, last May at International Council of Shopping Centers Retail Real Estate Convention in Las Vegas. "If people aren't safe that's horrible, but if people perceive it's not safe that can be just as bad."

Future owners can change that perception issue, says Bristow.

"If you look at the center with Panera and Lowe's only a couple blocks away, that's one of the busiest shopping centers around," Bristow said. "That used to be a run-down area with an old Kmart in it."

But that perception remains of DeSoto Square for now, and some residents think any buyers of the property will have a tough time with competition.

"Hopefully the new owner will want to do something with it and develop it into a reasonable place to go. I would hope that it would be a productive property," said David Wilcox, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years. "It's got a pretty high bar to meet now with the new mall opening up, and that's going to be very difficult."

Some residents say they do want the mall to stay, even if they only go a few times per year. Bernice King, who has lived in the area for 27 years, said she won't be going to the Mall at University Town Center.

"I don't like going out that way, it's too far of a drive and too much traffic," she said. "The DeSoto mall is a lot closer."

Mall has seen better days

DeSoto Square mall has had some ups and downs over the past year. It got another commitment from J.C. Penney this year to stay another five years. CrossFit Havoc gym opened in late 2013 inside the former Boater's World space, but that was short-lived, only staying about four months because of a lack of foot traffic and older demographics.

The mall also recently extended a parking lot agreement for Fifth Third Bank.

Hudson's Furniture opened inside the former Dillard's earlier this year, filling a 100,000-square-foot space that stood empty since 2009. Some of the long-term vacancies are still waiting for new retailers, including the former FootLocker, which also left in 2009.

The mall's curb appeal has diminished, as the mall's paint has faded in some places, the parking lot appears aged and its neighbors include a mix of older retailers and adult novelty stores. Some minor cosmetic changes were made to the mall, including new signs for the mall's entrances, but that remains to be seen if customers take that as a sign of better days ahead.

Alternative uses?

Retail real estate experts gathered in Las Vegas in May told the Herald that the mall's best bet is to be repositioned for the current demographics, and suggested creating a shopping center with a theme or adding social services or other alternative uses.

"Most regional malls that transition from fortress malls down to B and C malls happen because areas change demographically," Gilbert said. "It doesn't mean it's a bad demographic, but a different demographic -- generally with less disposable income than what used to be there."

The marketing and public relations of DeSoto Square has been less than stellar. After Hudson's announced the store was hiring, there was no announcement from the mall or the anchor that they were open for business. The mall lacks a dedicated website, and its social media presence includes sparse updates on Facebook, with only two posts this year. One of those posts included a promotion for Sbarro, which later closed.

"B-class malls are in the most trouble in the country," Frederick Schmidt, chief operating officer of Coldwell Banker Commercial, told the Herald at the Las Vegas convention. "They're challenging. There's no doubt about it. Some communities are making them community centers, assisted living or knock down a portion of them and re-use them for call centers or corporate uses."

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