WESLEY CHAPEL — Chad Doritan still had not declared a major when he took a public relations class.
His project: Revive a campus restaurant suffering from lackluster sales.
That's when he honed his philosophy of marketing.
"It was much more than putting an ad in the school newspaper," said the 35-year-old graduate of Denison University, a small liberal arts college just east of Columbus, Ohio. "Every point of contact is marketing."
Doritan tweaked the menu, improved customer service, brought in live entertainment and dreamed up some promotions.
At the end of the semester, the restaurant, whose name Doritan can't recall, was still in business, and Doritan earned an A.
A marketing director was born.
Today, after a career that has included working for a hospital, restaurants, hotels and shopping centers, Doritan is the marketing director for the Shops at Wiregrass, which is set to open Oct. 30.
Anchors Dillard's and Macy's are set to open Saturday, while Barnes & Noble will have a sneak preview from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 29.
Doritan and general manager Greg Lenners face a daunting task. Open a 646,000-square-foot outdoor mall with more than 60 shops and restaurants amid what economists are calling the nation's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
It's also an area hit hard by the housing slump. Recent figures show 60 percent of central Pasco families owe more on their homes than they're worth. And last week, reports showed U.S. retail sales in September fell 1.2 percent, much worse than an expected 0.7 percent drop and the largest decline in three years.
Despite the grim backdrop, the pair remain optimistic. They point out the mall is 75 percent leased, which they say is good given the economy.
"A shopping center has been needed in this area for a long time," said Lenners, a military brat who spent the majority of his growing-up years in Las Vegas and started as a stock boy for a luggage store before working his way into senior mall management.
Lenners and Doritan say there's enough pent-up demand for stores such as Dillard's, Macy's and JCPenney, not to mention Barnes & Noble, in an area that has long cried out for a bookstore.
"There's not much to do around here," Lenners said.
Those in development circles say the mall managers have good reason to be upbeat.
"I talked with some people building malls all over the state in the last week or two," said development attorney Ron Weaver. "Despite the economy, there are doughnut holes of retail activity. And those shopping center developers are actually finding tenants."
Wesley Chapel's relatively high income and lack of a shopping center like Wiregrass bodes well for the mall.
"It's a great location," said Patrick Berman of the real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield. Berman admits his firm handled some land sales on the property, known as the old Porter Ranch, but said the area will do well.
"You couldn't get a better mix of professionals and young affluent families," he said.
Berman said the economy may hinder things for a while but bad times won't last forever. And when things improve, the area will continue to grow, with more homes and a customer base provided by a hospital to be built nearby.
However, mall executives are leaving nothing to chance.
The mall has been built as more than a place to shop. With its curved streets, tall, up-lit trees, parallel parking and center court, it has a downtown feel that invites walking and sitting, Doritan said. Hence the slogan, "Shopping is just part of our nature."
Doritan also is working to make the mall a town center for a community that lacks one, with concerts and classes and programs for kids.
During the holidays, a 50-foot tree will adorn center court. Plans are in the works for a 250,000-light show choreographed to music from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
"We want this to be a place for people not only to shop but to hang out," Doritan said. "We want this to be an experience. Our goal is to make it an integral part of the community."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.