Justine Griffin / Herald-Tribune – It’s a rumor that began as an offhand comment from one retail developer to another.
But it took on a life of its own from there.
The possibility of Nordstrom, the Seattle-based, high-end department store chain, coming to Sarasota County was too good to keep quiet for too long.
But it’s not exactly the story one would expect.
Nordstrom, along with its luxury competitor, Neiman Marcus, were slated to anchor the Mall at University Town Center when plans for the $315 million mall were still in its infancy six years ago. But both brands abandoned those notions during the Great Recession as their interest in expanding into the Sarasota market fizzled out.
Southwest Florida residents would continue to drive to Tampa’s International Plaza to the north, or Naples’ Waterside Shops to the south for Nordstrom’s one-of-a-kind customer experience, as they’ve always done.
But now, people are talking about Nordstrom opening a department store in Westfield Group’s Southgate Mall. Nordstrom would reportedly take over the 97,000-square-foot anchor shell left vacant by Dillard’s, which departed Southgate late last year after opening a new two-story store in the Mall at University Town Center.
“There’s a huge vacuum in this part of town for retail because of the new mall,” said Barry Seidel, president of American Property Group of Sarasota Inc. “UTC is a novelty, and that’s going to wear off. To have a high-end store right around the corner from where most people live, now that would do very well.”
The space is too small for a traditional Nordstrom department store, usually 140,000 to 160,000 square feet, said Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail analyst who knows the Southwest Florida region well.
But local sources say that Norstrom would build up, making the alleged store two or three levels.
“Initially, Nordstrom looked at the Sarasota market and thought it was too small,” Green said. “I don’t know what would change their mind so soon after, especially when its common sense for them to join the new mall at UTC.”
Helping tongues to wag is that Dillard’s 7.4-acre parcel was purchased for $10 million in October by Benderson Development, one of the co-developers behind the Mall at University Town Center.
Saks Fifth Avenue closed at Southgate before Dillard’s, leaving Macy’s as the lone department store at the mall at Bee Ridge Road and Tamiami Trail.
Some sources point to Saks’ impressive sales during its run in the 40,000-square-foot space at Southgate as enough to catch Nordstrom’s interest. The mall’s proximity to the wealth on Longboat, Lido and Siesta keys, is another reason they cite.
Despite those strong sales, though, Saks still left to expand into a bigger store and offer more departments, knowing full well that some of their primary customer base would have to drive farther to shop. The company also felt confident enough in the move to close its Tampa department store in Westshore Plaza, leaving the UTC Saks as the only one to serve the entire Tampa Bay area.
“Nordstrom would be a game changer for Southgate,” Green acknowledged. “It wouldn’t be a bad move for Nordstrom either, but they depend on other quality tenants in the center, which Southgate has few of right now.”
But in reality, the chances of Nordstrom — a giant retail company whose focus has been on expanding its outlet division, Nordstrom Rack (already just around the corner from the Mall at University Town Center), in recent years rather than opening enormous department stores — debuting a full-line store in Southwest Florida are pretty slim.
“While we’re always looking at new and interesting markets around the country, we have no plans to confirm or announce in Sarasota,” Nordstrom spokesman Dan Evans said.
A Benderson Development official flatly denied the Nordstrom rumor.
“We’ve had a few calls asking us about Nordstrom, but there is absolutely no truth to it,” Chait said. “Why would we want to put Nordstrom there when we can put them at UTC?”
In fact, that new mall was developed with a fourth anchor spot in mind for future use.
Westfield Group’s management team at Southgate said they had no idea about the Nordstrom rumor.
“We have not been informed of the new owner’s plans for the Dillard’s building, but expect any new tenant in the building will be consistent with our vision for the center as the premier boutique shopping, dining, leisure and entertainment destination for Sarasota residents and visitors alike,” Southgate general manager Jim Ralston said.
Benderson’s ownership of the former Dillard’s is interesting, with some thinking the Manatee County-based developer will use the empty space as leverage in a bigger game to buy Southgate from Westfield Group.
The Australian mall company has been somewhat slow in transforming Southgate, a property the company has promised to renovate into an outdoor entertainment center with a 7-screen Cobb Cinebistro, new restaurants and new retailers. The movie theater and two restaurants, BRAVO! Cucina Italiana, and Connors Steak & Seafood, should open this year.
But there are much fewer retailers in the mall today that in its pre-UTC days. Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Cache, Gap and others abandoned Southgate for the newer mall.
Abercrombie & Fitch and two locally owned stores are what has so far stepped up to replace those that left in October.
“Nordstrom could be a piece of a bigger deal for later on,” Seidel said. “They could be vying to buy Southgate Mall and redevelop it later.
“I’d like to see someone like Benderson own that mall: when they say they’re going to do something, they do it.”