UNIVERSITY PARK -- As 1,000 bustling construction workers still hammer, drill, paint and saw, it's difficult to imagine that Tuesday will mark 30 days until the Mall at University Town Center launches its grand opening.
And, in the days before the grand opening, some stores and restaurants will offer preview events.
Today, many of the storefronts inside the mall are unrecognizable and some spaces are just framed in. The shining tiled floor is hidden underneath sturdy wooden planks to protect it from the heavy-duty work going on around the clock. The elevator isn't yet functional; the infinity fountain isn't flowing.
Yet, somehow come Oct. 16, this will be the only indoor mall to open in the U.S. this year, and just the third since 2006.
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"There's truly nothing like a grand opening," said mall general manager Ocatvio "Tav" Ortiz. "It's like a birth, and after that it's
a birthday. There's only one time that you open and after that, you operate."
The debris and dust actually illustrate the considerable progress being made. All three department stores are nearly ready to receive inventory. Four of the six restaurants are complete on the outside.
The trellis and spine of the mall's ceiling gives the building body as it curves from Macy's, south to Dillard's, throwing a shadow against the ceiling pane, which will illuminate at night. The sunlight helps show the progress the 1,000 construction workers have made. Lululemon's logo is in place, Sephora's black-and-white frame is nearly completed and Brooks Brothers' Greek revival marquee looks like it could be ready in days instead of weeks.
"To the untrained observer, it looks like they have a lot of work -- not to say they don't have a lot of work to do. We're confident they will be open," said John Eggert, director of development for Taubman Centers, the mall's operator. "We're going to have stores opening throughout the year and into next year as leasing gets finalized."
The standard to finish building out spaces used to be 120 days, then 90 days. Now it's down to 60 days and some stores can be ready in 30, he said.
"A lot of that tenant work occurs very quickly," Eggert said. "We get more surprised over time how little time it takes some of the tenants to do their interior buildings."
The focus of planning the mall has changed from the macro level of creating a varied tenant roster, to now making sure individual needs and fine details are met.
Countdown to opening
The next month will include an endless number of phone calls, meetings, texts and emails between Taubman and mall management, tenants, contractors, sponsors, media and local law enforcement to coordinate traffic control for the grand opening. UTC monument signs are being built outside, the mall's entrances are marked with UTC and even the road sign -- University Town Center Drive -- will be going up soon.
Ortiz has marketing, advertising and public relations to handle. Discussions with tenants top his agenda. It helps that the development team is in place, empowering staff to lead and coordinate.
"We definitely do a tenant meeting to help them understand opening day, what they're going to look like, what time we're going to open doors," Ortiz said.
He's meeting with the managers of the stores, too, to help explain the area and how the tourism market works here as many store leaders are coming from outside the Sarasota market, even outside of Florida.
He'll have some help from a grand opening team that includes Taubman corporate officials and mall managers from other Taubman properties, who will serve as opening day captains for certain areas of operations such as security and valet services.
Ortiz may even get his turn as a captain when Taubman opens The Mall of San Juan in Puerto Rico on March 26, 2015.
Mall management and Taubman officials not only have to plan for the grand opening Oct. 16 -- they have to plan for retail's busiest time of the year: Christmas. While trying to sign the final tenants, mall officials had to confirm when Santa Claus would arrive and pick out decorations and even a tree, which will be lighted a couple weeks after the grand opening.
"We just got the contract signed," Ortiz said.
While the Herald has documented every store that has committed and is ready to build, shoppers will be surprised by which stores will be open Oct. 16. The mall is 90 percent leased and committed, but not all retailers will open on the first day. The mall will have some small vacancies among its 880,000 square feet of retail space. As of Friday, 81,960 square feet didn't have building permits filed, meaning that about 90 percent of the space is in the midst of construction.
"We're selective about the tenants that come into the space," Ortiz said.
The mall has plans for temporary tenants, sometimes called "pop-ups," for at least two units in the "immediate future" for seasonal use, Eggert said. Some upscale malls that may lack a toy store have contracted with Toys R Us "express," but the types of seasonal retail stores have expanded beyond toys, calendars and Hickory Farms food to boutique offerings with handbags and clothes.
While department stores Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue are finalizing details with sophisticated logistics teams to move employees and merchandise from DeSoto Square and Southgate Mall, respectively, there are shop owners like Ken Atkinson who is alone in coordinating the opening of two mall shoe stores.
Atkinson is opening a Natural Comfort store and reopening his Foot Gear Outdoor store in the mall he once had in St. Armands. Atkinson owns Martini Import Shoes and Sperry Top-Sider on St. Armands Circle in addition to stores in Naples and Madeira Beach.
"It's hectic, especially doing two at once," Atkinson said. Plus he's getting ready to remodel his Martini Shoes store in the next 30 days, he added, to look like his Mall at UTC shops.
About 10 days ahead of opening, he plans to start stocking merchandise. He's already hired employees for the stores and has them working and training at his Sarasota stores. He recently finished design details.
"They have a totally different look. We have much bigger storefronts at the new mall -- not bigger stores, but bigger storefronts," Atkinson said. That gives an open feel to invite shoppers walking by Saks Fifth Avenue on their way to the Apple store.
The Foot Gear store will also have a Sperry shop-within-a-store, too, similar to his St. Pete Beach shoe store, he added.
Now all he can do is wait.
"At this point, it's kind of in the contractor's hands now," Atkinson said. "All of our decisions have been made in the last few months."
BRIO Tuscan Grille is ahead of schedule, with all the kitchen equipment and furniture in place, executive chef Jason Pellett said. The goal is to start training inside the restaurant Oct. 6, and employees will help organize one of the final big shipments coming on a tractor trailer from Ohio.
"We have small wares day, which is the Thursday before we really get to start training," Pellett said. "It's literally 25 pallets of small wares -- every fork, spoon, knife, plate, glassware, sauté pan -- it shows up that day and gets unloaded, washed and put into place in the restaurant."
About 15 to 20 employees that day will wash dishes and put the glasses away, and cooks will hang pans in their preferred place, Pellett said. Pending health inspections, the next day will be the first food delivery of 10 to 15 pallets of dry goods from Gordon Food Service. About 14 trainers, two executive chefs and more back-of-the-house trainers will fly in to help support the opening week operations.
"It's a zoo, but it's definitely controlled chaos," Pellett said.
The Cheesecake Factory is trying to find its 250 employees at a temporary hiring center inside the Shoppes at University Town Center on Cooper Creek Boulevard.
"We've had a nice flow of applicants," Cheesecake Factory general manager Tim Madrid said. "Out of those 250, there are probably going to be 3,000 potential staff members coming through the door."
Job seekers are advised to apply at cakecareers.com and will be contacted for an interview at the hiring center, Madrid said.
Madrid expects to be inside the restaurant at the start of next week for training and deliveries to begin, and preparation for invite-only mock dining as well as the Oct. 15 charity sneak-preview event. The restaurant's interior and exterior is nearly complete.
"We're looking pretty good," Madrid said. "It's really about the mall being the mall to get their certificate" of occupancy.
Soon, Eggert and others who have worked to bring the mall to life will have to let go and hand it all over to the public.
"It's a little tough letting go," Eggert said. "It's bittersweet turning it from your private project to something that's going to be populated and enjoyed by a lot of people."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.