Throughout the holiday week, YourObserver.com will be counting down the top 12 stories of 2010 (one from each month) from our Longboat, East County and Sarasota Observers. Check back each day for a reprinting — and any relevant updates — of the biggest news items of the year.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Oct. 28, 2010
Brian Kenney has heard the joke. People have asked him if he is old enough to drive to a shopping center, let alone buy one and redevelop it. But he would rather talk about his plans for Whitney Beach Plaza than he would talk about himself.
Kenney, principal of the Boston-based Juliani Kenney Investment Capital LLC, has chatted with shoppers as they pass through the parking lot of the plaza.
Some have told him they want a liquor store, because there’s no place on the north end of the island they can swing by for a bottle of wine.
Some have told him they want a coffee shop. They say the island doesn’t have a spot where they can buy a latte.
But Kenney hears one idea consistently: renovation.
“People have said anything would be better than what’s here,” he says. “It doesn’t look very nice right now. They want to see it renovated.”
Nearly 70% of the storefronts in Whitney Beach Plaza sits empty. Of 35,000 square feet in the shopping center, which is currently in foreclosure, just 7,000 is occupied.
Kenney hopes his company, which specializes in redeveloping distressed commercial and residential properties, can revitalize the plaza. Earlier this month, Juliani Kenney contracted to buy the property in a commercial short sale for an undisclosed amount. A closing is scheduled for Dec. 16. The property was most recently listed for $3.5 million by Tina Rudek, of Engel & Völkers Longboat Key/Anna Maria Island.
Last week, Kenney began working to establish an additional company office at the plaza, at 6824 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
Although past concepts suggested for the plaza have included a hotel, condominiums or mixed-use development, Kenney says that the “best and highest use” of the plaza is to remain 100% retail, providing goods and services to residents that they can’t currently get in town.
Kenney hopes to attract a mix of national and local tenants and is in the process of negotiating with a national coffee chain. He hopes to attract a national café, as well. Eventually, he would like to see a liquor store and bank and possibly a pharmacy and additional office space.
In good company
Kenney is a Boston native who attended Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass., and worked briefly as a stockbroker for Prudential before founding Juliani Kenney with his friend, Rick Juliani, three-and-a-half years ago.
The company started out focusing mostly on distressed multifamily residential properties but transitioned quickly into retail development. Recent projects have included repositioning and finding a national retail tenant for a 37,000-square-foot distressed property in Somerville, Mass.; the redevelopment of a 160-unit residential community in Tallahassee; and the 86,000-square-foot former New Balance headquarters, in Boston, that the company has transformed into office space.
The company was seeking development opportunities in southwest Florida and began to consider Longboat Key about five months ago.
The Whitney Beach project isn’t the only plan Juliani Kenney is pursuing locally: The company wants to buy two raw land sites for commercial development — one in Sarasota and one in Bradenton — along with a distressed multifamily property in Sarasota and a distressed commercial property in Tampa.
Currently, Kenney is an Ellenton resident, and he plans to buy a home on Anna Maria Island or in Bradenton.
“I’m going to stay in the plaza and that will be my home base,” Kenney said. “I plan to stay here, maybe forever.”
Kenney said that specific plans for the plaza — such as whether to completely tear down certain parts — will depend on the national tenants it attracts, which will serve as the anchors for the shopping center.
“One of the mistakes that developers make is building prior to having secure tenants,” he said. “The best strategy is to have a tenant before you build the space so that you can meet their needs.”
He says it’s likely that the nearly 12,000-square-foot space that was most recently home to Whitney Beach Deli & Wines, and the Market before that, will be leased to a single tenant.
His company wants to attract national tenants who will sign leases of at least 10 years, which Kenney says is a challenge in today’s economic climate.
“It’s tough in this environment to secure tenants,” Kenney says. “The challenge is the economy and getting people to commit.”
But he points out the positives. Longboat Key is home to a high-income population, but there isn’t a strong retail presence on the island. And the plans fall within allowable zoning uses, so the company won’t need conditional uses from the town to move forward.
By the end of November, Kenney hopes to secure major tenants for the plaza. If all goes according to plan, he could begin laying out the redevelopment scheme for the plaza by December.
“We hope one year from now that it will be an operational shopping center,” he said, “and it will be something people in the town can feel proud of.”
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]
The sale of the plaza was approved for $3.7 million Dec. 17 and tenants are now being pursued.