Sarasota's Mall at University Town Center trying to flourish as others struggle

Fast-growing Sarasota seemed a natural fit for a big mall, but a year in, the reviews are mixed.
Published October 9 2015
Updated October 9 2015

Sarasota's shiny new mall was a long time in the making.

The $315 million enclosed two-story luxury shopping center, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's and Dillard's, opened with great fanfare a year ago this month along Interstate 75 and at the edge of Sarasota's booming Lakewood Ranch suburban community. But building the 880,000-square-foot Mall at University Town Center was no easy feat, and its future remains in flux as more consumers buy online instead of inside brick-and-mortar stores.

The Mall at UTC was the only enclosed mall to open anywhere in the United States last year. It's still the newest mall in the mainland U.S., though its co-developer, Taubman Centers, opened a new mall in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this year and has plans to open another in Hawaii in 2016. The Sarasota mall has a Tesla Motors showroom and the only Saks Fifth Avenue department store in the greater Tampa Bay area after the one at WestShore Plaza closed.

With billboard advertisements in St. Petersburg and along I-75 in southern Hillsborough County, the new mall threatens to disrupt retail behavior in Tampa Bay. Mall executives say that shoppers drive to Ellenton in Manatee County for outlet shopping — at least until the Tampa Premium Outlets opens in Wesley Chapel later this month — so why not drive 45 minutes to this brand-new mall?

But so far, the mall's reviews have been mixed, retail analyst Jeff Green said.

"UTC has been a moderate performer, but that's not surprising given the current state of the mall industry," Green said. "I would say it's doing better than expected, and there's a lot going on in that market right now."

Brands like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom were a part of the Mall at UTC's early lineup, but disappeared in 2009 when plans to build stalled because of the recession.

Shopping malls across the country have gone under or changed dramatically as the need for so many within a community has waned. As the economy rebounds, a divide is growing in shopping trends. High-end, luxury brands continue to thrive, and so do discount centers like outlet malls. The mall for the middle-class shopper, however, is suffering.

Take a look at staple brands like JCPenney and Sears, which have closed hundreds of stores nationwide and are struggling to remain relevant. Mid-tier mall brands like PacSun, Abercrombie & Fitch and even designer brands like Ralph Lauren and Talbots are struggling for the dollars of younger shoppers, who are attracted to new and upcoming "fast fashion" names like H&M and F21 Red, which can change with the fickle tastes of teens more easily because of their low price point.

"We're in a saturated situation when it comes to malls. The need for new ones is just not there," Green said. "But that's not the case in Sarasota. That mall will continue to grow as the population grows."

The Mall at UTC sits on a 276-acre parcel along a busy highway. It's unique in that it's near a rowing facility poised to draw thousands of international athletes for worldwide competitions in coming years. Two hotels are under development behind the mall, and there are plans for three more nearby, said Mark Chait, a director of leasing for Benderson Development, a Sarasota-based real estate firm and a co-developer of the mall. And the neighborhood adjacent to it, Lakewood Ranch, continues to expand at an aggressive rate.

"We studied malls and toured the country before deciding an enclosed mall was the best thing for this area," Chait said. "UTC is so much more than a mall. It encompasses all of our centers in this area."

Benderson owns a slew of retail power centers all around the mall. With anchoring brands like Home Depot, Fresh Market, SuperTarget and BJ's Wholesale, the retail corridor there looks a lot like the bustling Mall at Millennia community and tourist shopping destination in Orlando.

And more retail is coming, Chait said. Benderson hopes to add more shopping centers and a movie theater soon. Bass Pro Shops says it's going to open a store near the highway one exit away.

Online sales for the upcoming holiday season are expected to increase, though they will likely only account for 6 to 8 percent of all retail sales during November and December, according to data from the National Retail Federation. Still, that's $105 billion in sales, and it's a segment that grows every year.

Taubman executives billed UTC as "the mall of the future" at retail conferences during development, saying that the Sarasota property would be a testing ground for new retail technology. Shoppers haven't seen much of that yet.

But retailers are flocking to the Sarasota mall. It opened last October at more than 90 percent occupancy, said general manager Octavio Ortiz.

Since the grand opening last year, more than 25 new stores have opened, including a Microsoft Store, Free People, H&M and Arhaus Furniture. Of those, 18 stores opened since January, Ortiz said.

A few have left — Cache closed after the retailer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Boston Proper, a Fort Myers-based women's retailer, will close in December.

"I don't think a lot of people realize how much is going on here," Ortiz said. "We've brought something new to this market that just wasn't here before."

Contact Justine Griffin at or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.