Fruitville Future

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2004

The property at 1515 Fruitville Road in between Lemon and Orange avenues was a Winn-Dixie back in the '70s, eventually morphed into House of Golf, briefly housed a Nieman Marcus clearance center, and then, two years ago, became Churchill's Furniture Inc.

In six months, it will transform once again. Custom luxury home builder and developer Mark S. Miller (president of Westwater Construction and a co-developer of Burns Court Villas) is tearing down Churchhill's to build a 124,600-square-foot, multistory office building with retail stores and a restaurant on the ground floor. Miller, who is developing this property under the name Lemon Avenue LLC with partner Chad Bratzke, a former defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts, is also talking to larger national developers about becoming partners. DSDG Inc. of Sarasota will design the contemporary-style structure.

The property wasn't listed when Miller purchased it for $3.4 million in June. "I know the owners," he says. "I knew when the timing was right they'd sell. It's a great area, and where in downtown can you get more than an acre?"

Currently the property is zoned for a five-story building. Miller is asking for a rezoning to seven stories with a drive-through for a bank, which would be his anchor tenant. No tenants had been signed when Miller purchased the building. Leasing rates will range $20 to $35 a square foot.

Miller also has ambitious plans for the 1200 block of Fruitville Road, in between Cocoanut Avenue and U.S. 41. (The condo project The Encore is adjacent and Marquee en Ville is across the street.) Miller's offices are located there, and he has purchased three additional lots. Under the company name Miller Ward, Miller is planning an 18-story ultra-high-end office tower "like nothing Sarasota has ever seen," he says. Tenants will be from other parts of the country. Miller says he's been approached by Hedge fund companies from Greenwich, Conn. Leasing rates will range from $50 to $60 per square foot, more than double what most downtown office space goes for today. "But that's a bargain for these companies," he says, where rates in Connecticut are above $100 a square foot.

And what about Hibbs Farm & Garden?

For the last year or so, Wayne "Bucky" Hibbs Jr. has had at least two suitors interested in buying the site of his 50-year-old garden store between Fruitville Road and Fourth Street, just down the street from Churchill's. The first, Tampa-based United American Realty, proposed a $75-million hotel/condo project with some retail. United American's proposal eventually fell apart; then Jon Cox, owner of Halfacre Construction in Sarasota, proposed a scaled-down plan that would also include a hotel with office and retail. That plan, too, has fallen by the wayside, says Hibbs.

But Hibbs isn't waiting for any more buyers to show up at his doorstep before making plans for his business's future. He's buying the old Green Fountain nursery property on Beneva Road in between Fruitville and Bahia Vista Street, and plans to move his garden store this summer. Zoned horticultural, the Beneva property is one of the few sites left east of I-75 that will still allow a garden store. "I decided I'd get a little lock on it now, before it was gone," he says. "It's going to be better. More room for a full-service nursery. My son Jeff Hibbs is moving his landscaping business there as well."

Hibbs is uncertain about the future of his choice downtown property. "I decided to step out of the box and see what happens downtown," he says. "I'm open to ideas." -Susan Burns

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