Justine Griffin / Herald Tribune – With three retail centers in the works, including the only enclosed mall to open in the United States this year, retail is booming in Southwest Florida.
The question is, can Sarasota-Bradenton support the number of projects and dozens of new brands looking to enter the market?
Robert Gibbs, retail consultant with Gibbs Planning Group, thinks so — and more.
Gibbs, author of “Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development” and a former executive with Taubman Centers, was commissioned by the city of Sarasota to do a comprehensive study of retail and its growth in the Sarasota market. His company targeted four core urban areas: downtown, St. Armands Circle, the Rosemary district and the corridor along Martin Luther King Way.
The consultant said he was “shocked” by the results of the study, which shows Sarasota has an incredible demand for more retail and restaurants, enough to support another regional mall after the Mall at University Town Center opens in October.
“The results were a pleasant surprise,” Gibbs said during one of three presentations he gave Monday around Sarasota. “The fear was this region was ‘over-retailed,’ but that is just not the case. There is a strong demand for more business here.”
His study showed that downtown Sarasota alone has demand to support an additional 100,000-square-feet of retail in the next five years.
The downtown area has a 4 percent vacancy rate, Gibbs told several dozen business owners, residents and community officials at Sarasota City Hall — much lower than the national average of 9 percent.
“I know some see the vacancies downtown as a problem, but our study suggests otherwise,” Gibbs said. “There may not be room right now to add that much more retail space, but retailers can re-merchandise or add on to their existing stores to meet that demand.”
Downtown Sarasota’s biggest challenge will be competing against the Mall at University Town Center, an 880,000-square-foot luxury mall that will open at University Parkway and Interstate 75 in the fall.
“Taubman Centers is the leading mall developer out there,” Gibbs said. “They’re known for having the highest sales per square foot in the business. That mall will raise the standards and expectations of the shoppers in this area, and other sectors will have to improve to compete with that. That time is now.”
A more cautious view
But not all analysts are as upbeat about the potential growth for Sarasota markets as Gibbs.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to do this kind of analysis until the mall has opened and we’re able to get a sense of how shopping patterns have changed,” said Jeff Green, of Phoenix-based Jeff Green Partners. “The new mall is nearly 1 million square feet of new retail. It is bound to change the dynamic of the market.”
Gibbs’ suggestions for improvement called for updated facades of storefronts downtown and for city government to implement design standards and a revolving fund to help small business owners keep their spaces current.
“The new mall will have an impact on downtown and other areas for the first several months, but shoppers will return to the stores they relied on before, too,” Gibbs said. “But they will have new expectations for those centers.”
Other challenges, such as stores staying open later for tourists who want to shop after dining out at night and the availability of parking downtown, remain.
But the study suggests that Sarasota can support 35 to 50 new stores by the year 2019, based on demand.
The Rosemary District — a part of town north of Fruitville Road where developers and government officials have recently discussed the addition of a $20 million mixed-use apartment-and-retail project — is projected to grow, too.
Gibbs’ study calls for 63,000-square-feet of retail space in Rosemary specifically during the next five years, to meet the demands of residents and tourists.
“The Rosemary District has the potential to become an arts-and-design district, like what you seen in Miami, on a smaller scale,” Gibbs said. “It can grow an area of specialty retail and restaurants that appeal to residents and tourists.”
Retailers and restaurants have struggled in the Rosemary District in recent years because of crime and lack of redevelopment.
St. Armands Circle
St. Armands Circle — Sarasota’s busiest and most built-up shopping and dining district — also is expected to grow, according to Gibbs’ study, which pegged the demand at 80,000 square feet during the next five years.
“Only 10 percent of all the tenants on St. Armands Circle are restaurants,” Gibbs said. “There’s room for more restaurants there.”
The study took into account the nearly 1 million visitors Sarasota County drew last year. On average, a Sarasota tourist stayed six days in the county and spent nearly $50 a day on food and merchandise. Shopping has become their No. 1 pastime, Gibbs said, and St. Armands is a prime place to build on that.
“Like downtown, St. Armands Circle’s main weakness is its aesthetics,” Gibbs said. “Our study projects that the circle can see $37 million in retail sales alone in 2019, but renovations to its buildings will help improve that.”
Gibbs pointed to Worth Avenue in Lake Worth and Third Street in Naples as examples of exterior improvements.
His study did not take into account other competitors about to arrive outside of the Sarasota city limits, such as Benderson Development’s proposed Siesta Promenade, a 250,000- square-foot outdoor retail and restaurant center with a hotel at Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41.
“The Siesta project will be competitive with St. Armands Circle as it will be drawing tourists to another beach area,” Green said.
The Benderson project is expected to have a similar feel to Westfield Group’s Southgate Mall revamp. The Australian mall operator plans to bring in international retailers new to Sarasota and, in some cases, the United States, and blend them with new restaurants, such as Bravo! Cucina Italiana and an upscale movie theater and restaurant.
Martin Luther King
The final piece of Gibbs’ study focused on Martin Luther King Way, an area of Sarasota with the lowest overall average income per household and with the fewest opportunities for retail growth.
“MLK would benefit from a food truck corral, where chefs eventually build their own restaurants,” Gibbs said. “Restaurants jump-start retail.”