UNIVERSITY PARK -- With grandiose developments such as The Mall at University Town Center come great expectations for attracting tourists, helping merchants appeal to new market segments and bringing people together.
The 880,000-square-foot structure spanning 73 acres brought more than 100 specialty stores and restaurants to the Sarasota and Manatee county communities. It was the first regional shopping center to be built in Sarasota in 35 years, and one of two enclosed malls to open in the United States in 2014.
It also linked Benderson Development Co., a prominent landowner in the area, with the Taubman Co., a retail giant headquartered in Michigan boasting a net income of $1.28 billion in 2014.
Together the two opened the Mall at UTC on Oct. 16, 2014. In the year since the ribbon-cutting, 25 more stores opened and one -- the apparel store Cache -- has closed. Cache filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the first week of February, closed all of its stores and the brand was purchased out of bankruptcy by The Cato Corp. Home and office furnishings store Brookstone took Cache's place in the Mall at UTC.
Of the 460,000 square feet of merchant space available at the Mall at UTC, roughly 9,000 square feet is yet to be leased. Kids Foot Locker and Six:02, also a Foot Locker store, are expected to open this month.
The mall's general manager, Octavio Ortiz, says much of the mall's first-year success can be attrib
uted to the mall's connections with local charities and organizations, such as the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota.
"He mentioned how important it is to support the community that supports UTC," Ortiz said, quoting Taubman COO William Taubman at the mall's one-year anniversary breakfast last week.
Lily Pulitzer, a women and children's apparel retailer, hosted several charity events within the last year.
"We've had an amazing partnership with Taubman and the mall management," said store manager Amy Smith. "The mall has exceeded our expectations as far as events they've done. We had puppies in our store and they've been OK with it. It's hard to find a mall like that." Smith, who has worked for other mall companies, is impressed with the Mall at UTC's management team.
Ortiz, who has worked for Taubman for the last nine years and has been in mall management for more than a decade, was involved in two other ground-up mall openings, one in North Carolina and one in Texas.
Getting customers to UTC
Though the mall hosts health seminars and offers intriguing displays such as the "Experience the Majesty of Peru" exhibit, some retailers feel more could be done to promote the mall's individual retailers. Managers of several shops began meeting about six months ago to share promotional ideas and organize events.
An art walk at the Mall at UTC, a product of the managers' meetings, has been designed to draw new customers to the mall. The managers hope their events will attract more people who will visit their stores.
"I thought I'd be a lot busier than I am," said Kandy Kaak, franchise owner of the Oil & Vinegar store at the Mall at UTC. "The mall has not taken off like people thought it would."
She sees about 30 percent fewer customers than she expected, even though Kaak said her store generally stays busy.
"It's frustrating, but at the same time we're lucky," she said. "Once they get to the mall they love it; it's just a matter of getting them here."
Heavy traffic, especially during Florida's tourist season, deters people from driving to the area, Kaak said. Developers had promised to keep traffic flowing, offering shuttles and other traffic-relieving devices before the mall opened. But some of the construction -- such as the diverging diamond project at Interstate 75 and University Parkway -- is only adding to the congestion and serves to keep even more people from coming to the mall.
When Oil & Vinegar is busy, Kaak sees a variety of domestic and international customers -- at first she "saw more internationals, but now we're seeing a lot more locals." Other stores aren't so lucky.
"I look at stores across from me and you don't see one person walk in the entire day," Kaak said.
Michael Stinson, owner and baker at Sarasota-based Sweet Doctors, a confectionery shop in the Mall at UTC, said the time of year is the No. 1 factor influencing his shop's business.
"At season it met my expectations, but it kind of died after that," Stinson said. "That's basically how everything is down here; season is key."
The mall's marketing team focuses mostly on promoting the mall as a whole.
"It's hard to specifically promote one specific store," Ortiz said. "It's the whole Mall at UTC experience we're trying to promote."
To appeal to tourists and locals, the mall uses email blasts, Facebook posts, billboards, brochures, magazine and newspaper advertisements and partnerships with area hoteliers. Fourteen area hotels have officially partnered with the Mall at UTC and created special packages designed for the mall-bound tourist. The Courtyard Marriott Sarasota University Park and Hampton Inn & Suites University Park offer $25 gift cards with their Mall at UTC packages.
The Mall at UTC is also an official Visit Sarasota visitor's center, even offering a foreign currency exchange.
Kim Dominguez, marketing and sponsorship director for the Mall at UTC, said the mall distributed "thousands" of Passport to Shopping booklets within the last year. The promotion offers special discounts for shoppers who traveled to the mall from outside of a 50-mile radius.
As the mall launches its second year, some merchants think it will only get better, especially as they launch into the holiday season just as the snowbirds arrive.
"We're looking to a full season with snowbirds," said Priscilla Nance, general manager of the Crate & Barrel store at the Mall at UTC. "We opened in October when the mall opened and kind of missed the first wave."
Plans for University Park and the area around the mall are designed to attract more tourists and more locals. An entertainment district anchored by an "upscale" movie theater, according to Benderson's director of southeast leasing Mark Chait, is one of the goals.
Three more hotels are also on the drawing board, and a 133-room Homewood Suites hotel behind the mall is scheduled to open in early 2016.
Getting potential shoppers from the hotels, entertainment district and surrounding shopping districts, all agree, will be the challenge for mall developers if they want to keep the individual retailers happy.
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.