UNIVERSITY PARK -- The Mall at University Town Center opens its doors Thursday for shoppers to open their wallets. The wait is over after 731 days of construction and with only 70 days left until Christmas.
The 880,000-square-foot mall has been eight years in the making, once delayed because of the Great Recession, and features shimmering stores, state-of-the-art lights and technology to make it the retail darling of the region.
"We think this can be a barn burner," said Robert Taubman, chairman, president and chief executive officer of mall developer Taubman Centers. "There is so much pent-up demand in the market. You can see in all the interest in all the stories and all the TV reporters. This has been needed for 10 years. This is exciting for us."
The $315 million mall opens at 9 a.m. Thursday followed by a ribbon cutting at 9:30 a.m. and stores open at 10 a.m. The mall, 140 University Town Center Drive, is off Cattlemen Road and University Parkway.
Taubman's fingerprints are all over the mall with the technology offerings and store selections while Benderson Development Co., based in Manatee County, is a 50-50 partner in charge of the land and development.
The mall, originally expected to open in 2010, nearly died during the Great Recession with Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus leaving the project as well as mall development partner Forbes Co.
"It was a very frightening time for a lot of people," he said. "Retailers were not really ready to make additional commitments. To the extent that they were unable to make those commitments, we could not build and open that shopping center."
Four years later, the mall opens with more than 100 stores Thursday with as many as 120 to be open by Thanksgiving. Come spring, that will increase at least another five.
On Thursday, shoppers can go inside Apple for the first time, sit in a Tesla or on a Lovesac. They can go to Soap Stories for artisan soaps, have a facial inside Saks Fifth Avenue or men can go for a shave from a master barber at Art of Shaving.
When hunger strikes, there are dozens of restaurants and eateries in the mall ranging from Auntie Anne's to Capital Grille and new ones such as Rise Pies Handcrafted Pizzas. Half the restaurants and stores are new to the Sarasota-Bradenton market.
From the center court, shoppers can walk a half-block north to Macy's or a half-block south to Dillard's and find pretty much anything in little more than three city blocks.
"One of the great things a developer needs to do when they're building a shopping center like this is that they need to build a one-stop shop that has all the comparative shopping needs of anybody," Taubman said. "If somebody wants to come here and buy something inexpensive, moderately expensive or very expensive, they can find it."
And if you get lost trying to find your store, seven touchscreen directories can illustrate how to walk to the store of your choosing from your location. This is the first Taubman center with this feature.
Taubman stood on a Juliet balcony on the second floor to show off the mall as a home-furnishing destination with a two-level Crate & Barrel, Z Gallerie, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and Lovesac with Anthropologie and Arhaus coming soon.
"We are absolute going to be the home place in the market," Taubman said.
Saks Fifth Avenue President Marigay McKee, on hand at the sold-out charity night Wednesday, said she was impressed with the new mall. It's the first new Saks to open in years and McKee told the Bradenton Herald if she was going to open a new Saks, it had to have dining. And it does with Sophie's at Saks.
"It's somewhere you could come and have lunch and hang out," McKee said. "Having an indoor and outdoor restaurant -- having the bar outside and having restaurant inside -- is really an upsale that I think will work once you incorporated it into one of our stores."
Alexandra Dillard, granddaughter of Dillard's founder William T. Dillard and corporate merchandise manager, was also on hand.
"We're really excited and thrilled to be opening a new store, especially one that's so beautifully well done," Dillard said.
More stores coming soon
More surprises and announcements were unveiled during the tour by Taubman and by signs in the mall:
Anthropologie will have its own special opening next week;
H&M will open in three to four weeks;
FootLocker, the ninth for Florida for the basketball-centric shop, includes an attached House of Hoops by FootLocker;
Talbots will open in January;
Arhaus, Lucky Brand Jeans and Tory Burch will open in the spring; and
The Mall at UTC will have Taubman's first mall exclusive smartphone app this year.
Also, Fit2Run is expected to open in the new mall in May, said Sharon Jacobson, marketing brand director for the Parrish-based company.
That timeline is likely to change and will also come with the closure of its Shoppes at Cooper Creek store at the same time, she said.
"We are very excited to be a part of the UTC mall," Jacobson said.
With the mall nearly filled, it's only a matter of time when the Mall at UTC could expand with a fourth anchor and more shops -- something already built into the plans. Taubman said he is optimistic about the future.
"These things take time and they take their own course. We're always in conversation with retailers. That's our business. We're really in the retail business even though it looks like we're in the real estate business," Taubman said. "We're delighted to talk to a number of them. As this center opens and does well, more people will be encouraged to be here."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.