WESLEY CHAPEL — Simon Property Group, the owner of Premium Outlets in Ellenton, has told Pasco officials it is interested in building an outlet mall on part of the embattled Cypress Creek Town Center site off Interstate 75 just north of the Hillsborough County line.
"They said they're ready to go as soon as they get the (Army Corps of Engineers) permit," said Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher, who met Feb. 8 with representatives from Simon and the Richard E. Jacobs Group, the Cleveland-based owner of the site. "They wanted to know if they would face any obstacles here. I said there would be no obstacles here. They wanted to know if they could go ahead and submit preliminary plans and construction plans."
No one from the Indianapolis-based Simon, the world's largest mall owner, could be reached for comment.
However, Thomas Schmitz, an executive with the Jacobs Group, said Jacobs now owns 140 acres on the south side of State Road 56. Of that, he said, 100 acres are developable. He would not name Simon, but said "the other group" would build on 50 acres, while Jacobs would continue to develop the other half.
"We're not going away," he said. "We're still committed to the project."
The outdoor mall, originally billed as a "lifestyle center" similar to the Gulf Coast Town Center in Fort Myers, was to offer SuperTarget and Kohl's, as well as other anchors, specialty shops and restaurants.
But a legal battle has raged since the Corps granted the mall permit in 2007. The Sierra Club sued the Corps, and in February 2008, the Corps suspended the permit after muddy water began spilling into a nearby creek that feeds the Hillsborough River, a source of Tampa's drinking water. Work stopped for 18 months, and the developers ultimately paid about $297,000 in fines for violating the federal Clean Water Act.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth issued a blistering ruling in August 2010 revoking much of the permit. He argued the Corps failed to conduct an in-depth study that takes a "hard look" at potential environmental concerns and make a "convincing case" that there would not be significant environmental impacts. The Corps' assertion that the mall would not create a cumulative impact "flies in the face of logic," the judge wrote.
Developers were encouraged in November when a federal appeals court overturned most of Lamberth's ruling. However, the appellate court ordered the Army Corps to consider concerns surrounding the eastern indigo snake, a species deemed threatened by disappearing habitat since the late 1970s.
Gallagher said Monday that the developers were in the process of revising their plans to comply with the court's ruling.
"The only thing they have to worry about is the indigo snake," he said. "They're confident."
Not so fast, said the Sierra Club's Denise Layne.
"This is not clear cut," she said. "It doesn't matter what they say or (how) happy they are."
Layne said a required environmental impact study could take up to two years. And developers have not offered any ways to decrease the size of the project's footprint.
"No one has approached us," she said.
But the developers have resolved another conflict, settling a lawsuit filed by Kearney Construction and several other companies that did earthwork at the site and said they were owed $1.6 million. Court records show the developers agreed to pay the plaintiffs $750,000.
Supporters of the project expect it to produce more than 3,800 full-time jobs and more than $8 million per year in tax receipts to Pasco County and the school district.
"This is a great site," said J.D. Porter, a member of the family that owns the Wiregrass Ranch site, once a rival to Cypress Creek.
He said an outlet mall would not compete with the outdoor Shops at Wiregrass, which includes full-price department stores such as Macy's and Dillards.
"They would feed off each other," Porter said.
An outlet mall at Cypress Creek would likely draw shoppers from Hernando County as well as Hillsborough and possibly farther, Porter said, noting that the Shops at Wiregrass has drawn shoppers from Sarasota and Bradenton. The closest outlet mall to the Tampa Bay area is Premium Outlets at Ellenton, another Simon-owned property, with 477,000 square feet and 130 stores.
Linda Humphers, editor in chief of the Clearwater-based Value Retail News/International Outlet Journal, said breaking into the Tampa Bay market has been a goal of Simon's for several years. She said 50 acres could be enough to build an outlet similar in size to Ellenton's.
The population growth and tourist attractions make it a desirable place for an outlet mall.
And shoppers, reeling from the sour economy but not wanting to give up quality, have discovered outlets as a source of value.
"The economy didn't turn everyone into a Walmart shopper," she said.