Justine Griffin / Herald Tribune – Bass Pro Shops’ entry into the Sarasota-Bradenton market came with a surprise: The megastore outdoor retailer bypassed the site of the much balleyhooed Mall at University Town Center for a rural development just one highway exit south at Fruitville Road.
Bass Pro Shops will open an 80,000-square-foot Outpost store and anchor a new 260,000-square-foot retail center called the Fruitville Commons off Interstate 75.
The new store — it will employ 200 people, with a restaurant and bowling alley attached — is slated to open in 2016.
All signs pointed to Benderson and the substantial cluster of retail that the Manatee County-based company has built around the site of the 880,000-square-foot luxury mall, which is to open in October. It seemed a prime spot for Bass Pro Shops, which says it can draw customers from 50 miles away.
Some analysts said there was an easy explanation for the apparent change of venue.
“Someone else offered them a better deal,” said Jeff Green of Phoenix-based Jeff Green Partners, an expert familiar with the region’s retail offerings.
“Bass Pro Shops is more deal-sensitive than they are location-sensitive. They’re the type of store that will do OK almost anywhere.”
The Herald-Tribune had confirmed Bass Pro Shops’ impending arrival in May, after the annual International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas.
At the time, it seemed that Benderson was courting the Missouri-based chain, which sells fishing, camping, hunting, boating and other gear.
But Bass Pro also was soliciting bids from local and national contractors to build a bigger store in the Sarasota area last month.
“This speaks volumes not only about the area around Fruitville Road, but Sarasota as a whole,” said Barry Seidel, president of America Property Group Inc. “This isn’t an upset for Benderson, either. They also have strip centers in that area, and Bass Pro Shops will bring more traffic there.”
Benderson officials declined to comment on Monday’s surprise announcement.
“The deal trumps just about anything,” Green said. “This was purely a financial decision, even if other factors, like traffic around the mall, played into it. The mall wouldn’t drive a lot of traffic to their store anyway.”
Building documents filed with Sarasota County detail an array of new retail offerings Benderson has planned for sites around the mall.
An 80,000-square-foot future space shown in these documents at the foot of a lake dividing the mall property from the Nathan Benderson Park rowing center looked like a spot planned specifically for Bass Pro Shops. The retailer is known to prefer being near its own water source so shoppers can test out equipment — canoes, fishing poles, kayaks and the like.
“That would have been a perk,” Green said, “but not enough reason to sign a deal.”
Fruitville Commons is likely the first piece of the Fruitville Initiative, a public-private partnership between five private land owners and Sarasota County.
The project includes a 420-acre rural parcel just east of I-75 at Fruitville Road.
County officials, property owners and developers have been working together for nearly a decade on developing an eco-friendly, mixed-use project there, one that could attract employers and become a neighborhood epicenter.
“Most of us thought Bass Pro Shops was going to be near the Mall at University Town Center,” said Joe Barbetta, Sarasota County commissioner. “No plans for the Fruitville location have been filed to the county yet, but retail is a piece of the master plan we have for that area.”
The goal of the initiative is to draw a variety of employers to the area, yet still preserve the rural environment, Barbetta said.
“There have been several inquiries on the properties,” Barbetta said. “There has been more activity and talk about building around that area now that the economy has turned around.”
Benderson is among those that have expressed interest in building there. It has submitted plans for a business park near the center, which would include assembly warehouses and research areas.
But “Bass Pro Shops approached us about the property,” said Realtor David Walters, whose family has owned the northeast parcel east of I-75 at Fruitville Road for 30 years.
“We thought it was a perfect fit,” Walters said. “We knew they had been looking for a place in the Sarasota market for a number of years and had been talking to all the players here.”
Besides the retail space, Fruitville Commons will have multifamily properties and offices.
“The timing is great for the Fruitville Initiative,” Walters said. “If they would have approached us a year and a half or two years ago, there wouldn’t have been enough traction with the county government to get it started.”
The Sarasota County Outpost store will be Bass Pro Shops’ 14th in Florida, and the second one in development on the Gulf Coast.
The company broke ground on a 150,000-square-foot Outdoor World in April near Westfield Group’s Brandon Town Center and has announced another store in Gainesville.
The next-nearest Bass Pro Shops is an Outdoor World in Fort Myers.
The 80,000-square-foot Sarasota store, restaurant and bowling alley represents a smaller format for the retail chain, which can open stores up to 300,000 square feet in size.
In the recession’s wake, other retail chains have focused on “in-filling” areas between their larger stores.
Chains like Walmart, which fills in urban areas between its supercenters with neighborhood market groceries, and The Cheesecake Factory, with large and small restaurant models, have scaled back to smaller store formats in recent years.