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Charlotte-Lee-Collier
Business Observer Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 7 months ago

Tower Power

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A Southwest Florida retail hub is on the cusp of a major shift — including doubling its offering of food and beverage establishments. Will the moves pay off?
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

While the retail real estate industry continues its mostly e-commerce-induced shakeout, the future of mall transformations can be seen up close in Southwest Florida.

Shopping centers nationwide, in all classes, have chased the entertainment and lifestyle trend for several years. Gone are dozens of big and bulky department stores, a slow burn facilitated by closures and bankruptcies. A mix of gathering-spot restaurants with millennial-fueled menus are taking the place of many of those legacy tenants. Others are filling the space with creative reuse, from chain-based gyms to medical clinics.

The reason behind the shift is simple: “Everyone knows the only thing you can't buy online is experience,” says Whitney Livingston, senior vice president of management services at Madison Marquette, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate development and investment firm. “There are a lot of landlords looking for tenants today, and we've had to modify development plans,” to reach that segment.

A prime example of that is happening at Bell Tower Shops, at the corner of U.S. 41 and Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers — a spot Livingston calls “bull's-eye real estate.”

A partnership that includes Madison Marquette and insurance giant Principal, according to Florida Division of Corporations records, owns the 343,000-square-foot Bell Tower Shops, built in 1982. A unit of Geneva, Switzerland-based investment firm Capital Guidance, Madison Marquette has owned a part of Bell Tower since 2004. Madison Marquette has also owned stakes in other prominent properties in the region, including Hyde Park Village in Tampa and the Mercato in Naples. The firm sold its interests in the Mercato in 2015, part of a $239.6 million deal, but remains its management, leasing and marketing company.

The Bell Tower redevelopment project, which began earlier in February, includes new inviting gathering areas; updated architecture and redesigned storefronts; and fresh paint and contemporary lighting, according to a statement.

The project is also planned to lure new tenants. The current mix at Bell Tower leans about 15% food and beverage entities, a figure that will likely rise to 30% or 35% after the redevelopment, says Livingston. That's a ratio on par with many other lifestyle centers nationwide.

One goal of the tenant shakeup, adds Livingston, “is to create something local and regional. That tends to be more authentic.”

While the Bell Tower redevelopment follows a key national retail trend, the project also got a big shove from the October 2016 closure of Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks had been a Bell Tower anchor since 1996.

“While we're regularly looking at the Bell Tower Shops, with the Saks Fifth Avenue vacancy, we saw it as an opportunity to do something different,” says Livingston, who grew up in Tampa and is now based in Dallas. “That 40,000 square feet gave us the critical mass.”

Madison Marquette officials declined to comment on the projected total investment in the upgrades — the first renovations at the property since 2009. “The investment is substantial,” says Livingston. “The landlord is committed.”

The overhaul will also provide another benefit for Madison Marquette, in fixing what Livingston calls a design flaw with signage at some stores. “Tenants look for three things — access, visibility and signage. Those are must haves,” says Livingston. The design issues at Bell Tower, she says, can be “significant hurdles in attracting best-in-class tenants.”

In terms of attracting customers and shoppers, the vision with Bell Tower, says Livingston, is to be a “modern town square.” The kind of something-for-everyone place, she adds, where activity ranges from a gym class at 8 a.m. to a drink with friends at 11 p.m. In between will be experienced-based retail, from getting nails done to coffee to groceries. Says Livingston: “It's going to be a place where you can park your car once.”

Push and Pull

A new retail real estate study from consulting firm A.T. Kearney says the heart of the shopping mall industry's seismic shift, from selling merchandise to offering experiences, leans on one key fact: owning stuff isn't as important to younger consumers as is experiencing things.

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