It's official: Ground is broken for the University Town Center

LAKEWOOD RANCH — After two decades of planning, continued delays and uncertainty if the project would ever become a reality, construction officially is under way on the University Town Center.

The near dozen golden shovels ceremonially spiked into the soil Monday at the future home of the upscale mall may become the most vital signs of economic progress the area has seen in decades.

The mall, officials say, will create 3,000 jobs alone — 5,000 when adding all shops and hotels. It will pump $100 million annually into state and local sales tax collections. It will produce $440 million every year in consumer spending — drawing shoppers from Tampa to Fort Myers.

But most of all, the $315 million project solidifies the Manatee-Sarasota area as a place where the economy is on the mend, said Bill Taubman, CEO of Taubman Centers Inc., the mall’s codeveloper.

“When you look at this market, there’s no high quality retail,” Taubman said as dump trucks moved loads of dirt on the site behind him.

“We think there’s a big opportunity here. People like fresh and new, and the architecture (of this project) is nothing like the market has seen.”

Michigan-based Taubman Centers expects the University Town Center to outpace the performance of its closest competition, International Plaza in Tampa, a luxury center also built by Taubman 11 years ago.

The Town Center becomes the group’s sixth upscale mall in Florida — joining the Mall at Millennia in Orlando, the Dolphin Mall in Miami and Waterside Shops in Naples.

It also is just the second regional mall to begin construction since 2006, joining another Taubman development in Salt Lake City, which opened in March.

The 880,000-square-foot University Town Center shopping center will feature 115 stories and six sit-down restaurants on top of 73 acres at University Parkway near Interstate 75.

Taubman attributes the company’s success to its financial position and focus on niche luxury centers.

During the crash, the company never closed any centers or cut shareholder dividends. The company did, however, put projects like the University Town Center on ice.

The mall was first proposed nearly two decades ago.

As consumer confidence rebounds and spending on discretionary items picks up, the developers say the timing now is perfect.

“Sales at all of our centers have rebounded, and activity has greatly improved since the dark days,” Taubman said. “That was one of the things that gave us confidence.”

The two-story indoor mall will be anchored by a Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Dillard’s. The other 115 specialty retailers, half of which will be new to the market, will be announced in one year.

Taubman said interest from tenants has been strong.

Plans also allow room for a fourth anchor, which also could be announced before the mall’s scheduling opening of Oct. 16, 2014.

At that time, Benderson Development plans to open a hotel on the adjacent lake to feed off the center and its nearby rowing facility. The company also plans to build additional general commercial, office space and 1,700 multifamily housing units on the site.

Two more hotels, with 500 total rooms, will eventually follow.

“When you passed by this 15 years ago, you might not have given it a second glance,” said Randy Benderson, executive director of Benderson Development, which holds an equal ownership share of the mall. “My father saw the same cow pastures, vacant fields and rundown outlet mall across the street as everyone else but he had a different vision.”

A typical regional mall will generate $450 in sales per square foot each year. That number rises to about $550 for more luxurious centers.

Even at conservative estimates, the University Town Center will produce about $440 million a year in local consumer spending. Counting the added shops they own in the area the total comes to $1.5 billion.

The mall also will lead to 1,000 temporary construction jobs and another 2,000 positions when it opens.

Area officials praised the project Monday for its sizable economic implications.

“This will be the catalyst for what happens here over the next 20 years,” said Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker. “On a larger scale, look what Disney did for Orlando.”

More than 100 elected officials, area businesses and community leaders gathered Monday for the event.

They point to the $6.2 million Bradenton downtown Riverwalk project, touted to also bring $12 million in consumer spending each year, as a sign the economy is turning the corner. That waterfront park will have a grand opening Thursday.

“You can’t keep this area down, the region is too strong,” said Dave Gustafson, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown development Authority. “People are going to come from miles around to shop at a place like this.”

The mall also change the landscape for retail across Manatee and Sarasota countries, stripping some business from both of Westfield’s malls in Sarasota.

Sak’s will be closing its Southgate department store to make the move to University.The new mall on University also could hurt business on Main Street Lakewood Ranch, and could deliver the knockout blow to DeSoto Square in Bradenton, said Barry Seidel, president and broker of American Property Group of Sarasota.

“That mall is just no longer a player,” Seidel said. “The usage of the property needs to be rethought, maybe turned into some type of office complex.”Owner Simon Properties stopped paying its $61.9 million mortgage on the aging DeSoto Square in November.

A letter of intent was signed by an unnamed buyer this spring, but the sale has been delayed over negotiations on the assumption of debt.

The anonymous buyer has 45 days to complete due diligence before their deposit goes hard — a process that has already been extended several times while trying to finalize loan modification terms.

An updated appraisal has been ordered on the property.

Despite the mall’s problems, Macy’s said Monday it has no plans on exiting DeSoto Square. The University Town Center store will become its second in Manatee and fourth in the two-county region.

“This is a great location,” Macy’s spokeswoman Melissa Goff said of Manatee. “I have seen it come a very long way.”

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman

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