The Mall at University Town Center, a recession-busting project that has captivated both the Sarasota-Bradenton business community and the local construction industry, has a new point man.
That leader is Octavio “Tav” Ortiz. Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers, which oversees the mall in a joint venture with Benderson Development, named Ortiz general manager of the mall in early September.
Ortiz comes to the project, a $315 million two-story, enclosed mall with 880,000 square feet of retail space, from a diverse career in retail management. Past career stops include general manager of The Shops at Willow Bend in North Dallas and executive positions with Simon Property Group locations in Sunrise, Georgia and North Carolina. Ortiz has been on the leadership team of three previous mall projects beginning with the construction phase.
Retail tenants already announced for The Mall at University Town Center include Dillard's, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue. Expected restaurants include Cheesecake Factory and Seasons 52. The mall itself is expected to open in October 2014.
“It's a fabulous facility,” Ortiz says. “Once we open and take off, we should be very successful. The mall will be a major destination.”
A Houston-area native who now lives with his wife and son in east Manatee County, Ortiz will spend the first few weeks of his new job on a local road show. That includes meetings with local officials, business leaders and reporters. Ortiz, 47, recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about his career and the highly anticipated mall. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation:
The last mall project planned for the site was delayed because of the recession. Why is this the right time to open a mall?
“There are so many unique situations here. The infrastructure is here, but there is a lack of retail. Sarasota is truly an underserved market when it comes to better retail options. There's not a lot of competition here. This is a great opportunity.”
How will the recession, and the inconsistent rebound in the economy, impact that opportunity?
“The economy has been doing very well here. I think that will continue way past the mall opening. The housing market has rebounded extremely well here. Tourism is still great, and that's a big piece of our business. We think it's a great community. If not, we wouldn't be developing here.”
What else is unique about the project?
“The surrounding area is not usually developed like this. It's a unique situation where the mall is the last piece of the puzzle that's being dropped in. Typically the mall comes first and things are built around it. But here the mall is the last piece and the infrastructure is already here. (Nathan Benderson Park, a rowing and aquatic sports center, is also next to the mall.) The most interesting part is preparing for when the development guys leave and hand us the key and say: 'Here you go. Here's your brand-new shopping center.'”
What is the interest in leasing from retailers, given how much the recession has changed the brick-and-mortar model?
“There's going to be over 100 new stores, and half will be new to the market. There's a huge amount of interest in this market. We feel we can have major impact here and become a major destination. Our trade area goes from basically Fort Myers all the way to just south of St. Petersburg. That's 1.2 million people, which is a huge trade area for us. Tourism brings 45 million people (to Florida) a year who spend $1.9 billion, and there are 125,000 seasonal residents with incomes over $150,000 who are really looking for better options. We hope to fill those needs.
You've heard it and we've heard it: There's been a huge interest in the tenant mix, and we want to bring those tenants to this market so people can enjoy them.”
What are some of the challenges you face now, a little more than a year before the planned opening?
“Taubman does a great job opening shopping centers. My main focus is really to coordinate the construction and hire the local team. We are looking for a marketing director who we want to bring on board in October, and we are looking for a facilities director who we want to bring on board in November. And we really want to get immersed in the community. We want to understand how the community works.”