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The largest retail construction project in the Sarasota-Bradenton region, a $315 million enclosed mall, is primed to move from the construction phase to the next big thing in 2014: shopping and eating.

“We are making progress in all areas,” says Octavio “Tav” Ortiz, named general manager of the project, The Mall at University Town Center, in early September. “Things are going really well.”

The mall, 880,000 square feet of retail space, is a joint venture between Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers and University Park-based Benderson Development. It's also a project with a spirited backstory: Original plans included more retail, hotels and other development. But the recession nearly killed it. The current project, still ambitious, has been one of the most talked about Sarasota-Bradenton construction developments in years.

Ortiz, who previously oversaw The Shops at Willow Bend in North Dallas, says there should be more to chatter about in 2014. He plans to hire several executives for the mall's leadership team in the first quarter, for instance, including a marketing director. He projects the staff will move from temporary quarters in a construction trailer to an office in the mall by April.

Taubman Centers also intends to launch a regional advertising campaign for the mall early next year that will reach from St. Petersburg to Fort Myers. A St. Petersburg-based firm will handle the ad buys for the campaign, says Ortiz, which includes radio, print and online ads.

Finally, there are the stores and restaurants. Ortiz says at least 50 of the 100 or so tenants will be new to the area. “Sarasota is truly an underserved market when it comes to better retail options,” Ortiz told the Business Observer in September, soon after he took over the position. “There's not a lot of competition here. This is a great opportunity.”

Taubman Centers, in a Dec. 9 statement, confirmed five of the six restaurants that plan to seize that opportunity at The Mall at University Town Center. Those restaurants include Brio Tuscan Grille, which serves northern Italian cuisine; The Capital Grille, a high-end steak and seafood restaurant; The Cheesecake Factory, known for an extra-large menu and sizable desserts; Kona Grill, which serves a mix of sushi and modern American dishes; and Seasons 52, a fresh grill and wine bar. A sixth restaurant will be announced next year, mall officials say.

There has also been activity on the retail leasing side. Anchors include Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's, and Dillard's. Other confirmed tenants include Smoothie King and American Eagle Outfitters.

The mall, says Ortiz, is on schedule to open Oct. 16, 2014. Taubman officials, working with Sarasota-based Clarke Advertising & Public Relations, are already planning the grand opening celebration. Says Ortiz: “We are moving in a lot of different directions.”


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