TAMPA — After a few tough years, area shopping center officials say the outlook for 2014 is better than last year but not by much.
Rising consumer confidence, coupled with a stabilizing home market, have prompted many retailers to expand more aggressively, especially restaurants finally recovering from the recession.
"We're definitely back,'' said Kalyn Brandewie, co-founder of Florida Retail Partners. ''Restaurants are coming out of the woodwork. This is the most activity I've seen in the past four or five years.''
Brandewie, who brokered some of the recent big restaurant deals along Boy Scout Boulevard, was among more than 600 shopping center leaders who met Thursday in Tampa for the International Council of Shopping Centers' West Florida Idea Exchange.
Last year in the Tampa area, shopping centers had a high occupancy rate — about 90 percent — but saw rental rates fall slightly to about $13.50 per square foot, largely because of the addition of big-box space created by the closure of 33 Sweetbay stores, officials said. Submarkets such as the West Shore area and South Tampa did particularly well, said Justin Greider, vice president of Florida retail brokerage at Jones Lang LaSalle.
Shopping center officials cautioned that challenges persist. The rise of online sales has retailers shifting to smaller stores that produce less rent. Consumers still worried about the job market are focused on paying down debt.
"Until the consumer feels like they can spend money, we're still in this holding pattern,'' said Seth Layton, an asset manager for DeBartolo Development in Tampa.
More than ever, shopping center owners and managers have to work with tenants to help them succeed, said Ronald Wheeler, chief executive officer of the Sembler Co. in St. Petersburg.
"When times were good you could give a tenant a key and tell them good luck,'' he said. "In this market, you can't do that.''
The Sembler Co., which leases and manages 12.5 million square feet of retail space, has seen its occupancy rate gradually increase and its rent revenue become more predictable. Tenants are no longer asking for lease adjustments because they have already gotten one.
Going forward, officials said retailers itching to expand after a few slow years will fill existing space and create a demand for more. Robert Boos, president and chief operating office of Boos Development Group in Clearwater, reminded the group that geography still matters. And retailers and investors want to be in Florida.
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.