Sales exec hired to spark new community hub's leasing.
Dressed in a blue business suit and tan leather shoes, Tom Johnson climbed up a pile of rocks and peered toward a grassy peninsula and the one-mile long lake around it.
It’s land that one day will become Waterside Place, a downtown hub in Schroeder-Manatee Ranch’s future 5,144-home Waterside at Lakewood Ranch development in Sarasota County.
To the 25-year-old Johnson, it’s a land of opportunity he gets to create.
“The people need to be able to hang out,” said Johnson, the new marketing and leasing manager for Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty, a subsidiary of SMR.
While working in downtown Sarasota for Harshman & Co. the last two-and-a-half years, Johnson developed friendships during his daily trips to Whole Foods, by frequenting a downtown yoga studio and engaging with anyone around him.
At Waterside Place, Johnson hopes to re-create that vibrant feel, albeit for a distinctly unique food-centric retail and restaurant district.
Waterside Place is slated to have about 200 apartments — with more on the adjacent property — but the roughly 100,000-square-foot commercial area itself will have a series of buildings with retailers on the bottom and offices on a second level, much like at Main Street at Lakewood Ranch. Potential businesses include a mix of restaurants or coffee shops, boutiques with unique items or services and neighborhood services, such as a dry cleaner or insurance agent.
About half the commercial businesses are expected to be food-related, and joining those 15 will be another four freestanding restaurants with patios extending over Waterside’s largest lake.
“It’s a food destination,” said Kirk Boylston, president of Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty, a subsidiary of SMR. “If you look at the good venues in Sarasota, there’s good food and good beer. Whether you are 20 years old or 70 years old, that’s the type of venue you want to go to.”
Boylston said the options for restaurants at Waterside Place are endless, ranging from specialty doughnut shops to a nano-brewery to ethnic foods.
“There’s all kinds of specialty foods,” Boylston said. “We want a real diversity of food offerings. We like to give exclusivity to each venue type. We’re expecting this center to be more of a regional destination.”
SMR hired Johnson in June to channel his energy and leasing experience to sell the commercial vision for Waterside Place, even though construction of Waterside Place, itself, likely won’t start until mid-2018.
Boylston said Johnson is the perfect pick.
“He was born and raised in Sarasota and he’s connected to the retail community,” Boylston said. “He’s personable.”
Boylston said Johnson is in tune with industry trends and he knows who the “best of the best” are. “That’s who we are targeting,” Boylston said.
SRM also expects Waterside Place to attract a younger demographic, so that fits Johnson as well.
Johnson already is having success. He said SMR has secured two letters of intent and has other businesses reviewing letter-of-intent documents.
His strategy when talking with prospective tenants is to tell Waterside’s story — one of a walkable community along the waterfront with a future farmers market and an 8-acre community park that will be home to community events.
Patrons will be able to walk from their apartments to shops. Residents of nearby communities can bicycle or, potentially, take a water taxi to the site.
The Players Centre for Performing Arts is planning a $30 million theater complex at Waterside Place as well.
“Everyone’s been extremely excited about it,” Johnson said of Waterside Place. “People want to know, who’s signed on?”
Johnson expects more businesses to join the prospective tenant lineup this fall when season begins.
“We don’t just want to fill it, we want the ‘best in class,’” Boylston said. “It’s a bigger undertaking than just filling it up.”
*Editor's note: Story has been updated to reflect SMR has two letters of intent for Waterside Place as of Aug. 5.