How Bass Pro Shops bypassed University Town Center for Fruitville Road

cschelle@bradenton.comJuly 9, 2014 

SARASOTA -- Somehow, Bass Pro Shops wiggled off Benderson Development Co.'s line.

The trophy retail catch instead landed in the hands of the Walters Trust and Harry E. Robbins Commercial Associates.

It seems that Benderson Development Co. had Bass Pro Shops tempted, but the sporting goods powerhouse decided to bypass the University Town Center bait for land marketed by Robbins Associates. But don't expect Lloyd Robbins to gloat over getting a deal.

"I don't see it as a coup as we outdid somebody," the vice president of Robbins Associates said Tuesday.

But Robbins is celebrating Bass Pro's commitment to a piece of the 41 acres held by the Walters family on the northeast corner of Fruitville Road and Interstate 75 -- part of the larger Fruitville Initiative bringing uniform planning and uses for property east of I-75.

The Fruitville properties border an expanding Lakewood Ranch community, as The Villages of Lakewood Ranch South aims to bring 5,100 homes plus 300,000 square feet of retail, blending the Manatee-Sarasota area even more.

Fruitville Commons, said Robbins, "is going to be a truly unique development along the West Coast of Florida instead of being a typical housing development and shopping center next to an interstate."

Robbins and the Walters family are fielding calls for additional tenants and housing partners for the property, but so far do not have commitments.

"At this point, our only commitment is Bass Pro," Robbins said. "We've got a lot of end users that we've talked to the last couple years since we put the sign up on the property."

Plans for the so-called Fruitville Commons remains to be seen. But Bass Pro's announcement came with news that the shopping center will be a 260,000-square-foot mixed-use development in 2016. No applications or site plans have been submitted for either Bass Pro or Fruitville Commons, said Jamie Carson, spokeswoman for Sarasota County Government. It's too early to know whether the Sarasota County Commission will have to approve the plan.

The Sarasota commission is expected to vote on the Fruitville Initiative, which includes rezoning several properties, in September or October. Following that, Bass Pro and Fruitville Commons can submit plans for approval, Robbins said.

A Sarasota County Planning Commission workshop to discuss the next steps of the initiative is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 17 at the Sarasota County Administration Building, 1660 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota. Bass Pro will not be on the agenda, Robbins said, because the talks are still about the larger vision for the properties.

Bass Pro did not return requests for comment for this report.

A fish tale

The whispers about Bass Pro coming to Sarasota started when a 2013 Bass Pro catalog listed Sarasota as a future location, along with other locations that have since confirmed stores -- Tallahassee, Port St. Lucie and Tampa (Brandon).

It's just that everyone thought it was going to be across from the new Mall at UTC, which is set to open Oct. 16.

The rendering video showing off the University Town Center property with what looked like a Bass Pro near the interstate? Fooled.

The Construction Journal listing for Bass Pro showing a construction bid for a 140,000-square-foot store at University Town Center near the interstate? That was wrong, too.

John Eggert, development director at Taubman Centers, did express doubt that Bass Pro would be beside the upscale mall when he spoke to the Herald in Las Vegas during a retail real estate conference in May. At the same time, he acknowledged that Bass Pro has found its way as an anchor to some shopping malls, including a couple by Taubman.

"Typically they're not an anchor you're going to add in with your traditional department stores," Eggert told the Herald in May. "It happens, and it has happened ... People are starting to think outside the box. You're seeing malls with Neiman Marcus and Target."

Bass Pro typically aligns itself with so-called value centers that have retailers like Ross, T.J. Maxx and Burlington Coat Factory, he said.

Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson, faced the question head on during a community workshop at The Meadows last month, telling the small group there was no agreement with Bass Pro yet, but that the company was considering a site southeast of the mall.

"If you look at the print that followed Bass Pro over the past year, nothing was attributed to us," Mathes told the Herald Tuesday.

After Bass Pro committed to Brandon, Mathes said, Benderson questioned whether it should try to attract another Bass Pro along I-75. Benderson wants retailers at the University Town Center to be the first in the Southwest Florida market.

"For us, it was more of a focus on what's going to be unique, and what's going to be special here," Mathes said. "Bass Pro in Sarasota would be another Bass Pro between Brandon and Ft. Myers."

Yet Benderson has been very successful with Bass Pro's chief competition, Cabela's, in the Northeast.

"We did open the first Cabela's in Massachusetts and the first one in New York," Mathes said. "Whether Cabela's comes to Florida remains to be seen."

Asked if he really wanted to have a series of "Cabela's to Florida" rumor stories to follow, Mathes laughed, but didn't close the door.

"We'll see what happens," he said.

Benderson is in the midst of a rezone request for its University Town Center property to add 600,000 square feet of retail and 100,000 square feet of office space east of the mall, as well as moving its residential component to the southwest corner of Cattlemen and DeSoto roads. If approved, the company plans to start development of the additional property in the first quarter of 2015.

Downstream in Sarasota

The Bass Pro deal went south. Literally, south to the next exit on I-75.

Bass Pro started talks with Robbins Associates several months ago, Robbins said, contacting the agency after a listing on its website.

"They've been looking at the Sarasota market for some time, but I'm not sure what their reasoning was for backing out of the University Town Center project," he said. "They felt comfortable with the whole Fruitville Initiative and the whole planning for the project."

The location acts as a gateway directly to Sarasota, he added. The location is also a more direct drive to beaches, fishing piers and boat ramps.

Instead of an Outdoor World, Bass Pro is bringing an 80,000-square-foot Outpost. The store will bring 200 full- and part-time jobs and still has room enough to boast a 20,000-square-foot bowling alley and restaurant called Uncle Buck's Fish Bowl and Grill.

While having several features similar to the larger Brandon location, one big difference is that the retailer did not apply for incentives in bringing its Outpost here, according to Sarasota County officials.

Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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