Big Deal

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2005

A team of eight in expensive suits, employed by Benderson Development, the region's newest mega-developer, wooed Sarasota County commissioners last summer, pleading with them to ignore their own planning commission and approve phase one of Benderson's biggest local project to date, the mammoth University Town Center. There were lawyers and engineers and designers and marketers, all painting pretty word pictures and massaging commission egos. At the end there was Randy Benderson, an unassuming man of 50 in wire-rimmed glasses and a no-nonsense blue suit. He looked reluctant making his way to the podium. He sounded reluctant making his pitch-not reluctant about his project, but about being in front of a crowd, on television and under the spotlight.

Benderson plodded through his script, explaining that he planned to live at the new complex, even joking uncomfortably that it included "a hotel next door for my mother-in-law to stay at." He got a chuckle from the crowd, but stirring oration this was not.

Still, he won approval. County commissioners, despite the planning commission's worry that the project didn't comply with the county's long-range plan, took Benderson at his word that he'll keep his promises.

With its national reputation and business savvy, Benderson Development, which moved its headquarters to University Park from Buffalo last year, is emerging as the most influential player in Southwest Florida's commercial construction future. Sarasota County Commissioner David Mills, announcing his support for the University Town Center project at the July meeting, summed up what a lot of people are saying about the low-key giant. "There's a leap of faith involved here. I want the commission to know if I'm going to take a jump, I would rather do it with Benderson than any developer in the world," he told the assembled politicos and citizens.

Private and quiet-so much so that the company doesn't even have a public relations department-Benderson is at the center of the development community's buzz. Browsing the headlines and listening to talk on the street, it's clear that the company is getting loads of attention, whether it wants it or not. With University Town Center finally getting under way, and a massive mixed-use project at Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41 soon to follow, the headlines are sure to continue. Add the upcoming $50 million rehab of Bank of America (the old Ellis building) on Main Street in downtown Sarasota and acres of future development in North Port, and it's clear that the company is here for the long term. In a community where good old boys ruled for years, development experts and county leaders alike see Benderson changing the way we do business-and changing the face of the region along the way.

How big is Benderson? According to its Web site, it is the "largest privately owned development company in North America." Benderson has 110 employees in Sarasota and more than 200 in four other locations nationwide. It has developed 20 million square feet of commercial retail space, seven hotels, 25 office buildings with more than 8 million square feet, and projects currently in more than 30 states. Plans in Sarasota and Manatee counties call for more than 10 million more square feet of development over the next three years, according to Rex Burgher, vice president of retail development. "We currently own and manage approximately 6.5 million square feet of commercial space in the state of Florida. We're going to be pretty busy over the next few years," he says.

"They're making a huge impact on our town," says developer Pat Neal, who is partnering with Benderson on the 2,500-home Woodlands at North Port, set to break ground in 2007. "They do very high-quality, very visually appealing properties. They'll also bring a higher level of professionalism to the local development community. The great thing about the Bendersons is that you get the answers, like them or not. I happen to like them."

The company's relocation was precipitated by Randy Benderson's father, company founder Nathan Benderson, 88, who bought a home on Longboat Key 10 years ago and fell in love with the area. Burgher says they picked up a portfolio of properties here from Marine Midland Bank in the 1990s, mostly anchored by Winn-Dixie supermarkets, and in short order saw the area's potential.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how many people are moving down here," he says. "And you have to be in the middle of it to get the most out of it, so that's why we moved to Sarasota. We opened an office, and then, boom!"

Perhaps it's an ingrained Midwestern wariness, especially when dealing with a Northeastern developer (although Buffalo is hardly one of the racy, pulsing metropolises of the east coast), but there is cautious enthusiasm when some discuss Benderson. The words that crop up are "hard-nosed," "bottom-line," "big," "powerful." Bob Tunis, North Port's economic development manager, says Benderson is not the typical Southwest Florida developer.

"They're in a different mold than the traditional developers in this area. That's not necessarily good or bad," Tunis says. "Because they're big, they're a little bit of a bulldozer in many ways. You have to be substantial enough to stand up to them. Or you just go along and reap the benefits." Tunis says Benderson was wise in hiring a local figure, Bill Murray, who has been involved in North Port planning for years, to be a local front man for their Woodlands development.

Planners and politicians say the Benderson method has worked well here so far. Instead of making themselves extra visible, announcing their altruism at every turn, Benderson spends countless hours and dollars in planning its projects. Where other well-known local names often are in front of the cameras and tape recorders, Nathan and Randy Benderson are busy putting together deals and mapping out their projects.

Burgher, however, counsels patience. The Bendersons were involved philanthropically in Buffalo and "no doubt we will be doing the same thing here," he says. "We're still settling in and moving people down." He's surprised at the attention his company is getting, so much attention that he has become the de facto public relations voice for Benderson. It's a role he doesn't relish but plays well. "The Bendersons are very low profile, very unassuming," Burgher admits. "They're not ones to run out there and toot their own horns. There are developers who are out there calling the newspapers trying to get their names out. We don't do that."

In fact, Randy Benderson doesn't want to be interviewed. He consented to answering questions in writing but doesn't want to be in the news. The company's philosophy fits in perfectly with the Sarasota business climate, he says.

"Our family and company have been accepted into the community with open arms," he wrote. "Benderson Development has always been successful at accomplishing major achievements in a quiet way. Our mantra has always been one of a team approach. No one individual within our team is more important than the next."

For University Town Center, Benderson plans a retail, office and residential complex that will serve existing area residents and bring more business to the north end of town. More than 1.5 million square feet would include a Super Target, movie theaters and other retailers. Randy Benderson told commissioners the company will relocate to University Town Center when the office portion is complete. County commissioners had to change the approved use of the land from "major employment center," which included light industrial and other uses that encourage sustained economic growth. A large concern with the new project is the availability of affordable housing for the retail employees. As the county struggles to find affordable homes for residents, this project appears to many to exacerbate the problem. As part of its agreement with the county, Benderson promises to build affordable residences in future phases at University Town Center.

At the July meeting, nearby residents were unanimous in their praise of Benderson and its plans. "We are very anxious to have it proceed," former Meadows homeowners association president Frank Reuss told commissioners. "We had frequent meetings with Benderson talking about their progress. What's being proposed will beautify the area."

Burgher says he developed such a rapport with some nearby residents that they apparently think they joined the development team. He provides his e-mail address freely, and about a dozen people have used it to suggest new stores, everything from Barnes & Noble to Best Buy to Nordstrom. "We'll try to provide some necessary services," is all Burgher will say when asked about prospective tenants.

Coming into Benderson's radar now is the southwest corner of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41. Not usually given to hyperbole, Burgher has high praise for its potential. While still early in planning, he foresees a mix of residential, retail, hotel and office uses at "what we believe to be one of the best available corners in the state."

The project, known previously as Siesta Point while being planned by another developer, could be valued at more than $350 million. It is planned for 25 acres that formerly housed a Shell gas station and Pine Shores Mobile Home Park. And with a medical office building near Sarasota Memorial Hospital, retail, office and hotels in Ellenton, plus six new retail projects in Naples, Benderson's enthusiasm about Southwest Florida is pervasive.

In fact, someone many would expect to be less trusting of such a large developer, County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, struggles to find anything to criticize about Benderson. Thaxton's was the lone vote against the University Town Center plans; he wanted guarantees of affordable housing and questioned allowing retail in an area set aside as a light industry/office employment center. But he says Benderson has involved the community in its plans, and prefers words such as "professional" and "thorough" to describe the Benderson staff he has met. "Sometimes I look at proposals that are half-baked. Not theirs. I was the lone vote against [University Town Center], but I can assure you that was not a reflection on the Benderson group. If I had to lose, which I saw that I did, the thought going through my mind was that at least it's [to] their company."


Current development projects.


Cooper Creek Office Park

Northwest corner of University Parkway and I-75 Type of development: Office/medical GLA (gross leasable area): 140,000 Features: Four 35,000-square-foot first-class office/medical buildings with available lake and nature preserve views. Start: Fall 2003 Completion: Two buildings complete, two buildings under construction

Ellis Building

1605 Main St. Type of development: Office/hotel GLA: 130,200 Features: This downtown Sarasota office building will undergo a facade and interior renovation along with the construction of a new 160-room hotel and parking garage. Start: TBA

Airport Business Center

Southeast corner of Whitfield Avenue and S.R. 683 (15th Street East) Type of development: Office/industrial GLA: 82,400 Start: Spring 2003 Completion: Spring 2005

Sarasota-Bradenton Commerce Center

Southeast corner of Whitfield Avenue and S.R. 683 (15th Street East) Type of development: Office/industrial GLA: 679,700 Start: Fall 2000 Completion: Spring 2006

North Port

Southeast corner of Toledo Blade Boulevard and I-75 (Exit 179) Type of development: Office park GLA: 40,000 Features: Six office buildings, ranging from 4,800 square feet to 9,600 square feet, on a campus-like setting Start: Fall 2005 Completion: Fall 2006

The Woodlands Office Park


Southwest corner of University Parkway and I-75 (Exit 213) Type of development: Mixed-use GLA: 1.5 million square feet of retail/entertainment Features: Residential townhomes, condominiums, 360-room hotel, 150,000 square feet of office space integrated into Town Center. Start: Fall 2005 Completion: Fall 2008

University Town Center (Landmark project)

Siesta Pointe

Northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road Type of development: Mixed-use residential/retail/office GLA: 350,000 square feet of retail Features: Residential townhomes and condominiums, office space integrated into retail. Start: TBA

Lockwood Village

Southeast corner of Honore Avenue and 63rd Avenue East. Type of development: Retail GLA: 120,000 square feet Start: TBA


Northwest corner of U.S. 301 and I-75 (Exit 224) Type of development: Retail/hotel/office GLA: 450,000 square feet of retail Start: Fall 2006 Completion: Fall 2007

Ellenton Consumer Square

Creekside Oaks Shopping Center

Northeast corner of U.S. 301 and Erie Road Type of development: Retail GLA: 163,000 square feet of retail Start: Fall 2005 Completion: Fall 2007

North Port

North Port Consumer Square/Panacea DRI (Partnership with Pat Neal)

Southeast corner of Toledo Blade Boulevard and I-75 (Exit 179) Type of development: Mixed-use GLA: 339,000 square feet of retail Features: 2,388 residential units, medical park, commercial park, elementary and middle school sites Start: Fall 2005 Completion: 2008


Fort Myers/Estero

Alico Consumer Square

Northeast corner of Alico Road and Ben Hill Griffin Parkway Type of development: Mixed-use GLA: 4 million Features: 1.5 million square feet of industrial, 600,000 retail, 2 million office, 450 hotel rooms, 900 residential units Start: Fall 2007 Completion: TBD

Six Mile Cypress

Northwest corner of S.R. 884 (Colonial Boulevard) and Six Mile Cypress Parkway Type of development: Retail/residential GLA: 242,000 square feet of retail Features: 266 residential units Start: Fall 2005 Completion: Fall 2007

Six Mile Cypress Woods Phase II

Northeast corner of S.R. 884 and Six Mile Cypress Parkway Type of development: Retail/residential mixed-use GLA: 250,000 square feet Features: Single-family homes/townhomes Start: TBA


U.S. 41 and Wiggins Pass Type of development: Retail GLA: 225,000 square feet Start: Fall 2005 Completion: Fall 2006

Gateway Shoppes at North Bay

Wiggins Pointe

U.S. 41 and Old U.S. 41 Type of development: Retail GLA: 150,000 square feet Start: Fall 2006 Completion: Fall 2007

Market Center, Davis Crossings, Collier/Davis Commons, Collier Consumer Square

Located along S.R. 951 at I-75 (Exit 101) Type of development: Retail GLA: 1,012,000 square feet of retail Start: Fall 2005 Completion: Summer 2007

(Source: Benderson Develoment Company)


Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Nathan Benderson, now 88, had the trappings of an entrepreneur early in his life. A video created by The Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies in Buffalo as a tribute to his years of giving is illustrative: In high school, Benderson would walk through the front door and immediately leave through the back, where he often would meet the truant officer for coffee at a nearby shop. In 1933, at the tender age of 16, he started his own bottle company, collecting used beer bottles from breweries and selling them to soft drink companies. According to Rex Burgher, who has worked for Benderson Development Company since 1983, Nathan worked round the clock when he started, catching naps in the back seat of his car.

His three sons describe a father who taught them the value of a dollar. Nathan returned every soda can from a restaurant for the five-cent deposit and never passed a penny on the ground without picking it up. As boys, they remember frantically running through the house to turn off lights when they heard their father coming home, for fear of his reaction to wasteful behavior.

Competition was also a creed. Decades into his success, when his sons were grown with families of their own, a gray-haired Nathan took the entire family on a recreational bike tour of Europe. Even then, says one son, Benderson cared more about being first from point A to point B than viewing the castles.

In 1940, Nathan bought an old courthouse in Buffalo, launching his career in real estate that eventually became Benderson Development Company. Nathan's first projects were office buildings in downtown Buffalo, and he is known for building one of the country's first open-air shopping centers, anchored by a supermarket. By the 1990s, the company ranked as one of the top 20 builders in the United States. Today Benderson is considered the largest privately owned real estate development company in the country, with more than 20 million square feet in its portfolio.

The youngest of his three sons, Randy Benderson, 50, is president of Benderson Development today, overseeing the day-to-day management of the company. Randy was in charge of many of the company's early and large projects, including one of the country's first outlet malls, Niagara Factory Outlet Mall, which opened in 1982.

Randy's son Shaun, 24, recently joined the company after earning a business degree from Babson College in Massachusetts, and will be involved in acquisitions.

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