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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 12, 2019 10 months ago

Commercial districts plot real estate strategy

St. Armands Circle and downtown Sarasota leaders want to fill vacancies and attract desirable tenants.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Property owners in downtown Sarasota and St. Armands Circle are looking to shopping malls for inspiration on marketing vacant spaces in the commercial districts.

The Downtown Improvement District and St. Armands Business Improvement District have both discussed hiring an outside firm to promote available real estate in hopes of attracting quality tenants. The strategy calls for marketing each area as one unified destination, a tactic designed to get each district on the radar of businesses beyond the Sarasota area.

On Sept. 3, the DID heard a presentation from the man who helped devise the concept: Paul Rutledge, a Tampa-based senior vice president at commercial real estate brokerage firm JLL. Rutledge got in contact with the St. Armands BID after the group expressed a desire to more effectively market the retail space on the Circle.

Rutledge said he thought the ideal strategy would mirror one used by malls. If leaders promoted the entire area as a singular entity, property owners could pool resources — in this case, the tax revenue that the BID and DID generate — to enhance their promotional outreach. Rather than looking at one property, a potential tenant could look at entire district. Under Rutledge’s vision, an interested business owner could go to one source to get information on all the available properties in the area, which would make it easier to find the right space.

One major difference between a shopping center and these Sarasota districts is the number of property owners involved. Many malls have one owner who can strategically plan the retail mix of their property. In St. Armands Circle, there are more than 60 different property owners.

Rutledge said there are some examples of multiple owners working together to promote a shopping center, but he acknowledged getting people to team up could pose a challenge.

“The more support you have, the more energy, the better,” Rutledge said.

Rutledge proposed a 12-month contract at a cost of $120,000 to the BID for promotional services. The price drew some concern from BID members, who proposed teaming up with the downtown group to split the expenses.

At the DID meeting, real estate broker Ian Black was critical of the notion of hiring an outside real estate firm to promote properties in the area. He suggested the plan represented a taxpayer subsidy of JLL’s entry into the Sarasota market and said a national firm lacked the knowledge of downtown and St. Armands that local real estate companies offered.

He questioned the benefits associated with hiring JLL and said his company already takes similar steps to market its properties and reach interested tenants. Rutledge said a larger firm, such as JLL, had more points of contact than local companies could offer. Black countered that the prospect of connecting with more national chains wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

“We’re different,” Black said. “We’re eclectic down here. That’s what sets us apart.”

Still, BID and DID board members were interested in exploring the concept further. In addition to concern about current vacancies, both groups were hopeful the marketing angle could help improve the character of each district.

“It’s not about getting national tenants,” BID Chairman Gavin Meshad said. “It’s about getting a better quality of tenants.”

Although downtown and St. Armands are two of the highest-profile shopping destinations in the area, Rutledge told the boards he thought they could always benefit from more aggressively marketing any available spaces.

“It’s a good product to sell,” Rutledge said. “But you can have great product sit in the store all day long.”

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