Justine Griffen / Herald-Tribune – When it opened in Sarasota County in October, the Mall at University Town Center was unique not just in Florida but nationally: the only enclosed mall to debut in the United States during 2014.
But with the economy rebounding strongly from the Great Recession — and even in the face of rapidly growing competition from the Internet challenging traditional malls — at least some players are thinking there are still opportunities to be had in that retail arena.
Some are thinking big in Florida — very big.
Triple Five, the international developer behind the Mall of America, has unveiled what it hopes will become a $4 billion mega center and amusement park in Miami.
The aptly named “American Dream” would be a 200-acre shopping center with attached carnival rides that would blend two of the state’s strongest economic sectors: retail and tourism along the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 75 near Miami Lakes.
The mall — purportedly to feature sea lions, submarines and a ski slope — would be larger than the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, which is 4.2 million square feet with 520 stores and 50 restaurants.
American Dream could continue the Sunshine State’s run of proposing and building enclosed shopping centers at a time when malls and retailers are shuttering their stores in them faster than ever across the country.
But could even Miami sustain such a retail bonanza?
“Miami’s economy has changed dramatically over the years,” said Barry Seidel, owner of American Property Group in Sarasota. “There’s so much money coming in from people visiting from South America and elsewhere. The value of real estate in that area is huge.”
Britt Bemmer, CEO of America’s Research Group Ltd., agreed: “The concept coming to Miami will be successful. Entertainment is a key component in shopping centers now. They have become family destinations.”
The retail industry in Florida also has seemingly bounced back from the Great Recession faster than other states because of the state’s rising employment, a rebounding housing market, strong tourism and investment spending and robust population growth, which we can thank the steady influx of retirees for, Charles Taylor, the International Council of Shopping Center’s Florida state director, told “Shopping Centers Today.”
Triple Five, the international developer behind the proposed Miami mall, declined to comment.
Even potentially being overshadowed by American Dream, Southwest Florida remains fairly unique, retail analysts say, in that the demand for more shopping and luxury brands was enough to drive people to a new mall near Interstate 75.
That’s true even if the Great Recession stalled plans to build the Mall at University Town Center for several years.
“A lot of dollars were leaking out of the market when shoppers were headed to Tampa for some of these stores,” said Jeff Green, a retail analyst based in Phoenix who is familiar with Southwest Florida’s shopping scene. “Now they’re staying in Sarasota.”
As for the American Dream property, if it ever gets built, it will become a destination like none other, Green predicted.
“This property absolutely has the ability to be a real life thing,” he said. “It will make Miami an even larger destination for tourists. The mall will be a magnet for the international shoppers that already flood Miami’s other malls.”
The draw for shoppers isn’t all that different in this region, albeit at a smaller scale.
Billboards for Sarasota’s Mall at University Town Center line the highways of neighboring communities, like Fort Myers to the south and St. Petersburg to the north.
Data collected by mall operator, Taubman Centers Inc., show that the Mall at University Town Center aims to attract 1.2 million shoppers — from communities to the north and south in addition to Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Tourists are expected to be a large part of the Sarasota County mall’s springtime foot traffic.
It also helps that a world-class rowing center, which will draw thousands of tourists competing right in the mall’s backyard to the region through the years.
Almost like the blending of an amusement park and retail, isn’t it?