As construction hums along on the Shops at St. Pete four months after its first anticipated opening, owner Bill Edwards has brought a real estate veteran on board. Mark Stroud is the new president of the newly formed Edwards Realty Group.
Before this post, he was a principal in Marcus Partners, a Boston real estate investment firm.
Stroud and Edwards declined to comment on the hire.
It's a smart move on Edwards' part to hire Stroud, who is local and has vast experience in commercial real estate negotiations and acquisitions, said Mike Milano, managing director of retail investment sales at Colliers International.
"I think that's a perfect alignment," said Paula Clair Smith, a commercial agent with Merritt Realty Corp. "I'm not privy to anything Bill Edwards is doing. (Stroud's) forte is acquisition. When Edwards brought him on, my thought is he's going to buy more property."
Edwards, who bought the former BayWalk shopping plaza in September 2011, first contracted celebrated New York retail agent Faith Hope Consolo to fill the vacant center he's spending about $30 million to renovate. She is no longer working on the project.
Stocking an almost empty retail center with high-quality tenants is a tricky puzzle of timing and negotiating, said Milano, who is not working with the Shops. Anchors usually won't commit until other anchors have, so it's a constant juggle. And retail companies limit how many stores they open a quarter or year, so they may want to go in a certain location but aren't be able to until down the road.
At one time Edwards said he would announce the tenant mix in June 2012 and open the center in September 2013. Later he said the tenants would become known much closer to the opening. More recently he told the Times that some but not all tenants would be in the Shops of St. Pete by the end of the first quarter of 2014.
Chico's, which recently closed after sticking it out during much of the extensive reconstruction, is reopening in March, according to its website. The White House Black Market website says it will reopen in April..
While the Shops' timetable has continually shifted, the new look is staying true to early renderings. The rounded pink and yellow stucco of BayWalk has been transformed into a modern silhouette with sleek, straight lines and marble tiles. Four tall pillars now stand in the center of the courtyard. They will eventually open into giant white shade umbrellas resembling blooming flowers. The walkway from the city's parking garage to the retail center has been redone in a patchwork of stone. A security guard contracted by the Shops now stands watch over moviegoers making their way to the only tenant, Muvico.
Despite the Shops' slow start, other retailers are steadily buying into downtown.
The Bicycle Store, with sales and rentals, just opened at 124 Second Ave. NE, a stone's throw from the Shops. Fig home furnishings plans to open in the same block by mid February, moving from 1545 Fourth St. N. In Search of Balance active wear is also moving to the block from 300 Beach Drive NE.
"We had to grab the opportunity while we could," said Fig co-owner Marte Kehoe, who still has a year left on her Fourth Street lease. "That's where we wanted to be, and we're looking forward to more foot traffic. There is so much energy downtown right now."
Kehoe and business partner Alice Koller aren't sure what will happen with the current Fig location. It could be leased or serve as an annex to the downtown store. They may change the name of the downtown store, which will offer more European furnishings and accessories along with interior design consulting.
Avid cyclist Lisa Charest thinks downtown is the perfect location for her Bicycle Store. Tourists and locals can rent a brightly colored cruiser or off-road bicycle for around $25 for four hours. She's creating themed maps so customers can to bike to museums, breweries, restaurants or historic neighborhoods.
"Downtown St. Pete can't get any hotter," Smith, the commercial agent, said. She cited an increase in office leasing and new apartments going up. Occupancy at the newly named Morgan Stanley Tower across from the Shops is up from 65 to 80 percent since August. More downtown employees and residents translate to more shoppers.
Smith inked the deals that brought Tryst, My Yogurt Cafe and Agora to Beach Drive in 2010 and 2011, when rents there were about $35 per square foot. Now the rate is closer to $50 a square foot.
"When the Shops of St. Pete opens, that will draw people off of Beach Drive," Smith said. "But this is all happening in spite of (the Shops) not happening yet and with the city not even having a pier."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8785.