Lakewood Ranch's new restaurant and entertainment hub of Waterside Place is expected to have a soft opening by May.
The days are melting away as Schroeder-Manatee Ranch approaches the planned opening of Lakewood Ranch's $31.6 million restaurant and entertainment hub — Waterside Place.
And even though Kirk Boylston, the president of SMR subsidiary Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty, has yet to announce an anchor tenant restaurant, he remains "super excited" that 2021 is going to mark a huge start for a project that broke ground Oct. 10, 2018.
"We think around May we will have a good number of tenants," Boylston said. "In general, though, you never have a full project when you open."
Complicating matters has been the COVID-19 pandemic. While Willis Smith Construction will finish building on time in March, the pandemic has slowed down the process of signing up anchor restaurants.
"Without COVID-19, we would almost be finished," Boylston said. "But banks aren't lending to restaurants. It has lengthened the process."
Boylston said four to five sit-down restaurants are planned for Waterside Place. One of the buildings that make up the hub is a 7,500-square-foot structure that can be divided in half to host one or two restaurants.
Although he would like to have contracts in place for some of the sit-down restaurants, Boylston said he must remain "extremely patient" to land the type of restaurants SMR desires to fill the buildings.
"We have existing relationships with individual restaurants that are very good, and that don't own 20 other restaurants," Boylston said. "We don't want cookie-cutter (chain) restaurants."
He said those restaurants, however, have struggled with their existing businesses. Boylston said those restaurant owners have been excited about the opening of Waterside Place, but they also are distracted.
"There are a number of people who we are pretty far down the road with," Boylston said. "We are waiting for them to get their current locations profitable. There is a very small world of people who we want to consider these sites. Those are interesting, very well-crafted restaurants. We want places people can go where they like the ambiance, a place you can't get in five different locations. That makes it a destination. It increases your radius of draw."
He estimates Waterside Place will open in May with a "good number of tenants." Lakewood Ranch Commercial has announced 10 business and restaurants scheduled to open in the spring and Boylston said they have leased 12,000-square foot of office space.
"We're thinking in the fourth quarter, we will have more of a grand opening," Boylston said.
Starting in the spring, though, he expects plenty of foot traffic even if the anchor restaurants are ready to open. He said the setting alongside a lake, the island park, entertainment programming and the existing businesses will drive people there. He said it will have all the advantages of Main Street at Lakewood Ranch, and more.
"This will be the gem of Lakewood Ranch," Boylston said. "The project took tremendous time and effort."
With COVID-19 vaccines now being provided for the pubic, Boylston said he expects rapid changes in 2021 as people begin to return to their normal lifestyle.
"We're getting clarity," he said.
Boylston said it is fortunate that COVID-19 didn't come a month after Waterside Place opened and instead is, hopefully, headed toward being a non-factor.
Monaca Onstad, the director of community relations for Lakewood Ranch Communities, is going full-speed ahead with programming plans for Waterside Place to begin in May. She said she can scale back if the pandemic doesn't allow for certain programming.
Onstad plans to move the Market at Lakewood Ranch, currently held on Sundays in the parking lot of the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, to Waterside Place as early as May.
"We think about these things year ahead," she said. "That market was created for Waterside Place. It will become 52 weeks a year."
The Market at Lakewood Ranch usually closes the end of April so Onstad is hoping for a smooth, no-break transition from the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center to Waterside Place.
She also said Lakewood Ranch Communities and Lakewood Ranch Community activities have opened 23 new art and fitness programs since the pandemic began. Some of those programs will be duplicated at Waterside Place while others might take a different form or be completely different than what already is offered.
"What I see is an extension of what we already are doing around the Ranch," she said.
She has introduced all kinds of ideas that are being considered, such as a "Friendsgiving" event around the Thanksgiving holiday which would include a week of live music, games and a family day where those who attend could participate in traditional events such as pick-up football games.
Waterside Place will have an 8-acre island park that will include a splash pad and sand volleyball courts. There will be open space for yoga, barre, concerts, cornhole and a speaker series. Eventually Waterside Place will have bike rentals and water taxi rides, all expected in 2021.
She said hosting successful events will draw people to businesses that open in the spring.
Boylston hopes everyone keeps in mind that Waterside Place is a long-term project that will impact the local communities for years to come. That's why he isn't rushing to fill spots.
"This is going to be good for Lakewood Ranch and it's going to help us sell homes," he said. "We could sell all the property in Waterside without having it, but we just don't do that. A normal developer couldn't build this project. It wouldn't be (financially) feasible. We have too much open area."
He said SMR spared no expense on the project.
"All the beams, joists and cladding are real wood," he said. "All the heavy timber beams have been custom cut. It has been an extremely intricate project because of the level of detail. We spent weeks just figuring out what stain we wanted and how many coats. Willis Smith has done an amazing job."
The first phase of apartments built by Davis Development is now leasing and the second phase will begin in 2021. In all, Davis will build 844 apartments on site at Waterside Place along with 22 townhomes.
When it first opens in May, Boylston looks forward to seeing visitors' reactions.
"They won't say, 'Oh, that's a custom beam,'" he said. "But they will say, 'Wow, this is really nice.'"