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Wesley Chapel mall snares JCPenney

The Shops at Wiregrass lands the retailer, delivering a blow to University Mall and Cypress Creek Town Center.

Published April 14, 2005

WESLEY CHAPEL - JCPenney made it official on Wednesday. Its 26-year run at University Mall in Tampa ends on Oct. 7 when the retailer opens in a new open-air mall rising in Wesley Chapel.

Construction began quietly a few months ago, but Wiregrass Ranch developers staged a sort of after-the-fact groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday just to demonstrate that the race to build the next mall in the Tampa Bay area has rounded the first turn.

They pitched a tent by the concrete walls rising from a cow pasture. They filled it with easels of artist renderings of pedestrian courtyards, shady palms and outdoor cafes. Then they pitched the story that they have surged into an early lead against a rival developer's project 3 miles away.

"This proves our project is real," said Brian Ratner, executive vice president of Forest City Enterpises Inc., which is building the $105-million Shops at Wiregrass in a joint venture with the Goodman Co. "Being first out of the ground is an advantage we hope to keep as we seriously go after tenants."

There's a reason for the rush: some observers, including Ratner, wonder if enough retailers can be mustered quickly enough to fill the millions of square feet of retail space being proposed at Wiregrass and the other nearby projects. Laying claim to being first often is critical in directing where a parade of retailers ends up.

JCPenney, which is building its first open-air lifestyle center store in Florida at Wiregrass, will have the Shops at Wiregrass to itself for a while. Construction on some unidentified restaurants and shops doesn't start for six months or so. And the rest of the 60-store shopping center is not scheduled to open until fall of 2007.

On the northeast corner of State Route 56 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, the 750,000-square-foot project is being built in phases while the rival and much larger Cypress Creek Town Center a few miles west at State Route 56 and Interstate 75 remains mired in the environmental permitting mill. Being developed by Richard E. Jacobs Group, that 1.3-million square foot project is scheduled to open in 2007, too.

Both projects are jockeying for position to land any of five department stores that would unleash a flurry of lease signings by other mall-type stores and restaurants.

The next prize or two could be the clinchers: landing the first Macy's, Dillard's, Sears, Kohl's or even a Parisian store in eastern Pasco County. Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops, mega-sporting goods retailers, have scouted both sites and neighboring land in what is shaping up as the next big retail hub of the sprawling Tampa Bay market.

Meanwhile, 12 miles south, University Mall is playing defense in hopes the loss of one of its four anchors doesn't trigger more defections. Typically, mall retailers have herd instincts. Department stores like to roost together. Once a few of the smaller chain stores follow the department stores, a parade can gather.

The loss of JCPenney, which is one of the original stores in the 1978 mall, is a huge blow. JCPenney will move to a 98,000-square-foot store from a 160,000-square-foot space in University Mall.

"A lot our University Mall store is storage," said store manager Connie Lant, "We will be moving everyone and everything we have there to Wesley Chapel. We won't be eliminating anything."

University Mall's owners at Glimcher Realty Trust are not sure how they will fill the JCPenney space. They could try buying back the building or wait for Penney to do something on its own. When Montgomery Ward & Co. was liquidated a few years ago, the mall had no say in who replaced it because the retailer sold its building to Burlington Coat Factory.

Plenty of malls prosper with as few as two or three anchor department stores. But University, which is more than 85 percent leased, is mapping plans to adapt should other chains follow. (Bombay Company is going.)

"We look at the loss of stores like JCPenney or Bombay as an opportunity to bring in some new storefronts or even some new uses such as sit-down restaurants," said Brooke Smith, Glimcher's marketing director for the Tampa Bay area.

--Mark Albright can be reached at or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified April 14, 2005, 01:14:09]

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