UNIVERSITY PARK -- Despite early morning rush-hour traffic jams exacerbated by shoppers clogging the Interstate 75 interchange at University Parkway, traffic flowed easily into and out of The Mall at University Town Center by grand opening time Thursday morning.
The Mall at UTC officially opened its doors to shoppers at 10 a.m. Thursday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
By opening time, parking lots were quickly filling up but the traffic flowed freely.
Signs directed mall employees, to park in the overflow parking to the southeast.
Jerry T. Wentzel, a transportation engineer and Southeast Regional Manager of DKS Associates, stood with a walkie-talkie and a cell phone in
hand by the corner of University Parkway at North Cattleman Road. Wentzel, whose job was to help manage the flow of traffic around the mall, had been there since 7 a.m. Thursday.
"We've been planning for the grand opening for a couple of years and there's a lot of people in place to make this thing work well -- as well as it can," he said. "Traffic's not going to be perfect ... we expect a controlled chaos."
Controlling the "chaos," according to Wentzel, is done through signs, lane closures, signal timing, cameras at intersections -- and about 70 people from different transportation firms directing traffic.
"We've got people in the traffic-management center who are controlling the signals, and they're watching the cameras that are out here to see how traffic's moving," Wentzel said.
He said he feeds the center real-time traffic information and when he thinks they should correct a signal timing, for example, elongating the timing of a green light to allow different lanes more time in which to travel and to prevent traffic jams.
Wentzel said the transportation firm will be helping manage traffic at the mall through Sunday. He said not much traffic was coming to the mall until about 8 a.m.
As for the mall's parking spaces, he said UTC ran out of parking Thursday morning. Cars began parking across the street at Target, 101 N. Cattlemen Road, which, by the afternoon, had plenty of spaces available.
"We expected opening day to be the biggest weekday and, so far, we've had a great traffic flow ... have not had a problem, have not had a collision, which is our biggest concern: making sure things are safe," Wentzel said.
"People have provided feedback in the mall and said, 'This was much better than I thought it was going to be.'"
Just outside the mall, the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office had set up a mobile command center on the vacant lot at the southwest corner of North Cattlemen and DeSoto roads. The command center was supported by dozens of deputies and vehicles, including a canine unit and Special Operations Hazardous Materials Support.
Deputies patrolled the mall parking while two deputies on mounted patrol also stood by at the mall's south entrance.
Mall security provided by Universal Protective Services was clearly visible throughout the mall and in the parking lots. Security guards also aided in directing traffic.
The presence of the sheriff's office was felt strongly outside the mall as well, with an increase of deputies on the roads and in the shopping centers adjacent to the mall.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office also increased its patrol in the areas near the mall and had two deputies stationed at the intersection of University Parkway and North Cattlemen Road.
The Florida Highway Patrol also was out in full force on I-75 and will continue to be until Sunday, according to a news release.
By 11 a.m., nearly every parking lot was full at the Mall at UTC, with only a handful of shoppers exiting the mall clutching armfuls of shopping bags.
Across the street from the mall, a makeshift bus stop was set up in vacant corner of North Cattleman and DeSoto road.
As foot traffic inside the mall increased Thursday afternoon, parking spaces were at a premium outside Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue and vehicles crawled at a snail's pace in search of an available spaces.
There were many more parking spaces available on the east side of the mall.
Leah Brush, 16, Laura Owen, 16, and Michael Penkava, 14, sat on a curb in the parking lot waiting for their ride. It was almost 4 p.m. and Brush and Owen had been at the new mall since 11 a.m.
"It's really interesting and I like the layout and I love all the stores they have," Brush said. "I'm really excited for H&M to be opened ... and the Forever 21 is really amazing and so is Victoria's Secret and PacSun."
Owen, who held a cup from Mandarin Express (where she ate in the mall), said she really enjoyed the mall.
"I love that it has an Apple store so you don't have to drive all the way to Brandon for it -- that's pretty cool," she said. "And Starbucks, obviously."
Penkava said the mall is really close to where he lives, which is convenient.
"It's awesome and it's the biggest that I've ever been to," he said.
Brush, who is from Bradenton, said she had been anticipating the mall's opening for a year now.
"It was definitely worth my while," she said.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. Follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.