WESLEY CHAPEL — Mark Gold is new to Wesley Chapel, but not vice versa.
The real estate investor and developer spent three years searching for property in the Wesley Chapel area and a year negotiating for the purchase of the Grove at Wesley Chapel before closing the $62.7 million acquisition last month. His ambition is to do what he’s done at other sites around the Southeast — turn a stale shopping center into a destination for family-centered dining and entertainment. This one is northwest of the Interstate 75 interchange at Wesley Chapel Boulevard.
"There is so much population and so little to do,'' said Gold. "What is missing in this area? Entertainment, food and activity.''
Toward that end, Gold unveiled plans for what he calls a container park to feature local food and crafts. He also envisions a children’s park, an amphitheater and musical events like those offered in the Wynwood food and culture district of Miami. He said he plans to invest an additional $110 million in the project.
Essentially, he wants The Grove at Wesley Chapel to become the community’s downtown.
By Oct. 18, eight businesses had signed leases in the downtown area, including restaurants serving bagels, pizza, Brazilian burgers and sushi. An ax-throwing arcade is coming, as are a microbrewery, a dueling piano bar and restaurant, a family salon and a F45 fitness studio.
The quick pace of leasing is a key to success, he said.
"If you sell the dream, something must happen fast, or people don’t believe the dream,'' he said.
The dream doesn’t end there, though. Gold said he has three letters of intent from national companies seeking to fill vacancies created by the 2018 departure of Toys R Us and Babies R Us. New development could include a trampoline park, a bowling-based fun center and miniature golf.
But the real enthusiasm surrounds the planned container park that will extend nearly 11 acres. It will stretch the new pedestrian-friendly area from the downtown, that Gold rechristened The Village, toward the Outback steakhouse restaurant to the south. Gold announced it as a 60-container park, but demand has been so high, that he said a second phase of 40 additional containers is in the works.
His wife, Vivian, and daughter Keren are handling the container designs. Fifteen have been leased already. Gold said rents for the containers — $1,000 for a 20-foot structure or $1,500 for a 40-footer — are intended to attract small, family-owned businesses. The focus will be on local arts/crafts/retailers and food service. He plans short leases for some of the containers, so people can give it a try without a long-term commitment. It also will allow for a changing flow of vendors to give the container park the feel of an outdoor market.
"I believe in the energy of people. It’s not like the big chain,'' said Gold about focusing on opportunities for mom-and-pop businesses.
The Grove at Wesley Chapel certainly had a headstart in the area’s retail boom. The first of central Pasco’s three outdoor malls, it opened in 2007, a year ahead of the Shops at Wiregrass.
But a dozen years after its ribbon-cutting, new additions to the Grove have been few, and the shopping center trailed the activity at the retail hub located one interstate exist to the south. There, at I-75 and State Road 56, Tampa Premium Outlets opened in 2015, and development on both sides of SR 56 in the Cypress Creek Town Center has brought two dozen restaurants, two grocers, Costco, Hobby Lobby, a string of retailers and a bowling/fun center that are either open, under construction or in the planning stages.
Gold is poised to change The Grove’s image, announcing via a Youtube video plans to "create a one-of-a-kind destination for people all over Tampa Bay.'' Besides the existing structures, Mishorim-Gold Properties acquired the surrounding 114 developable acres, and Gold said more acquisitions are planned.
The plaza’s image certainly needed work. The 471,000-square-foot center is anchored by Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy and other national retailers. But its small, faux downtown area facing Interstate 75 was never completed. Entertainment is limited mostly to the 16-screen Cobb Theater and a Chuck E. Cheese, neither of which are within easy walking distance of the retail stores. And the plaza’s nearly non-existent food options meant an outdoor hot dog cart became its most recognizable lunch spot.
Cost Plus World Market arrived in spring 2018, but at nearly the same time, the Grove lost Toys R Us and Babies R Us when that chain shut down. At various times, the mall’s then-Atlanta-based leasing agent circulated leasing maps showing Sprout’s Farmers Market, Kohl’s and Total Wine & More as proposed tenants; none of that came to fruition. Aldi, meanwhile, considered a parcel fronting Wesley Chapel Boulevard before deciding on a location within the Cypress Creek Town Center.
Now, the landscaping is manicured, new LED lights are being installed, leases are being signed and the buy-in for Gold’s vision is blooming.
''Wow. It’s absolutely amazing — the vision and seeing the potential coming to fruition because the potential has been there the whole time, said Hope Allen, president of the North Tampa Bay Chamber after meeting with Gold.
The first new tenant is Double Branch Artisanal Ales, which plans to open an 8,400-square-foot brewery, tap room, outdoor patio and private event space by the end of December.
Directly across from the micro-brewery in the Village area will be a 6,000-square-foot restaurant and dueling piano bar. Jamie Hess of Wesley Chapel announced his lease signing on social media and invited the online community to christen the bar. The winning name is Treble Makers.
"We thought if we built it, other people would follow us out there,'' said Ryan Clarke, owner and managing partner of Double Branch Artisanal Ales. He said he looks forward to additional restaurants and a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere to the The Grove.
The brewery plans its own food-service area to function from two food-truck-sized kitchens. Having a new restaurant across the street shouldn’t be considered a negative.
"A rising tide raises all ships,'' said Clarke. "It can only help in the long run. More restaurants and more activities bring more people in.''