MANATEE -- The Fountains Shopping Center has seen better days, and Ian Black Real Estate hopes it can return the property to viability.
Tucked away behind a Hooter's, at 4808 14th St. W., activity is starting to take place to find new tenants and make improvements.
When Steve Horn, a leading broker at the Sarasota-based firm, and New Jersey investor Vincent Russo acquired the property in a bank sale in 2013, it clearly needed some work.
"The center has been tired," Horn said. "When the buffet and Lifestyles were there, it was humming. It was moderately filled and when the owners lost those tenants, they basically gave the property back to the bank and let the property deteriorate."
After spending $2.1 million to buy the property, the company poured in money to replace the roof, add new irrigation and landscaping, resurfaced the driveway and parking lot and are working to have a new monument sign by the end of the month. They expect to submit plans for façade improvements.
"Our claim to fame is once we get done with improvements, I think we're well positioned in terms of location and from an aesthetics standpoint, it's going to be a very pleasing shopping center to look at," Horn said.
More importantly for shoppers and the broker's bottom line, negotiations with tenants are being finalized.
"If all goes well, we hope the anchor space can be leased in the next couple months," Horn said. The goal is to see most of the work completed and tenants committed by 2015.
Grand Buffet, an Asian restaurant, is expected to open at 4848 14th St. W. in October, Horn said. It appears the contractor was too eager to get work started. Manatee County Building and Development Services posted a stop-work order Tuesday afternoon at the buffet for doing electrical, plumbing and framing work on a permit issued for removal of a wall, ceiling grid and floors.
Horn said the permit was delayed and the contractor continued to work and expects to have the permit issued next week.
Horn is trying to reposition the retail spot as a lifestyle center -- a mixed-use strip mall that combines retail with more upscale offerings.
"We want quality tenants," Horn said. "I turned down a lot of tenants like sweepstakes, bingo and everyone in between. We want a nice, clean, healthy center."
The L-shaped shopping center is 65 percent vacant and features a 1,950-square-foot outparcel that would be ideal for a drive-thru. The nearby Pizza Hut and Hooters aren't owned by the shopping center.
The center used to be home to a Lifestyles gym, Stacey's Homestyle Buffet, Ultimate Tiger Martial Arts and Sports Legends bar. An exotic fish store, Paradise Reef, had a small fire in March 2013 and closed. Now all that's there is Livingston's Billiard's, Desert Winds Hookah and nursing school Med-Life Institute.
Richard's Foodporium had been advertised as coming to the shopping center, but that deal fell through, Horn said.
Desert Winds owner Mohammad Suwaity praised Ian Black for committing to improve the property calling the former owners "horrible."
"I remember back in the day when I was younger, there was a sports bar, and I think we could use that," he said. "We're open from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., and a bar would help us out because we don't serve alcohol and we could help each other."
If the 28,470-square-foot anchor space is filled, that leaves 18,000 square feet left to lease, he said. The anchor unit might be subdivided depending on the needs of the tenants. Developers are willing to get "extremely creative" for deals with a potential user for the corner unit, he said, because the owners paid cash for the shopping center. That deal also allows Horn to price leases 20 to 30 percent below market.
The added activity on Cortez and 41 with Chick-fil-A, Best Buy, LongHorn Steakhouse and a new LA Fitness coming soon is helping boost demand for space in that corridor, Horn said.
"I think that's really the epicenter of what's going on with that node," he said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.