Malls may be in decline across the country, but here in Sarasota, where the economy has bounced back and incoming baby boomers are arriving every day, they’re alive—and growing. The Mall at University Town Center grabbed headlines and attention when it opened last October, taking Dillard’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and a number of national retailers away from Westfield-owned Southgate Mall. But Westfield, a major shopping center player known for innovative strategies, has been busy ever since reinventing Southgate and adding some bells and whistles to Sarasota Square as well.
This week we got a sneak preview of what’s in store at Southgate. The mall, which general manager Jim Ralston points out enjoys a great location close to upscale residents and downtown shoppers, is being repositioned as an entertainment/dining/shopping destination for older, well-heeled residents and visitors. It will also be renamed Westfield Siesta Key—a name that may surprise some locals, since it’s not on Siesta Key at all (it’s on Siesta Drive, which leads to the south bridge to the key) but that may help attract tourists thanks to the worldwide recognition Siesta Beach has garnered after being named the country’s best beach several times, most recently by Trip Advisor.
Westfield has already completed $10 million of improvements, including brand-new travertine floors, new ceilings, fans, seating and lounge areas, fountains and more. And construction is well underway on Cobb Theatres’ CinéBistro, set to open by February of 2016. Billed as “the ultimate dinner and a movie experience,” CinéBistro will contain seven smallish movie theaters decked out with comfy leather lounge seats, where you can order dinner—you have to arrive 30 minutes before the show—and drinks. The menu is upscale casual, with gourmet sandwiches and burgers ($13 and up), pasta dishes, a selection of starters, and cocktails ($10 and up) along with wine and beer. There’s also a bar that looks glamorous in the rendering and has become a popular hotspot in CinéBistro in places like Vail. Guests must be 21 or older; you can try out two sample seats and see the complete menu in a display in the mall next to the theater, which is going in where Saks used to be.
Three new restaurants are planned—one of them, BRAVO! Cucina Italiana, has already announced, but leases for the other two are not yet final. Ralston says they’ll add some landscaped outdoor space so diners can enjoy balmy Florida days and nights. And they’re adding more retailers, too. Right now they have about 33, he says, and “the sweet spot would be 35 to 45.” Some new stores have recently opened, including Abercrombie and TreborStyle, which offers Italian jewelry and includes small boutique displays from several local retailers. Art Avenue, a housewares store, and Alexander’s European Clothiers have also signed on. And on September 10, Ground Zero 360, a traveling exhibition of photos and artifacts from 9/11 will open; it will run through January.
While Westfield Siesta Key will have an upscale vibe, Sarasota Square attracts more middle-American, “multi-generational families,” says Ralston. A new H&M has opened to long lines at the cash register, and a 15,000-square-foot Old Navy is set for a soft opening Saturday and a grand opening on July 18. There’s also a new carousel—along with the popular kiddie train—to keep kids and grandkids happy.