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Sarasota Herald Tribune (Florida)
With at least eight new retailers in the works, there's been no shortage of movement at Westfield Southgate this year.
And that's even before the treadmills, cycles and aerobics classes at the new LA Fitness really get rolling.
The rows of fitness equipment have moved in and the construction crews have cleared the dust at the south end of the old Dillard's property.
But it's really not fair to call it that anymore.
The department store chain's storefront and signature dome have been replaced with a sleek facade. There's a three-lane swimming pool in a space that likely once held racks of clothing, and the interior has an earthy, fresh vibe to it that almost makes it feel like a spa. It's a new prototype for LA Fitness and a new look for the mall as a whole.
If you'd never known it was once a Dillard's, you'd never be able to tell.
All that's really left in this part of the evolution is for the doors to open.
While LA Fitness couldn't give me a solid answer on when the soft opening will begin, the staff expects it will be soon.
This launch is the next step in a much bigger project. The traditional indoor shopping mall at U.S. 41 and Siesta Drive is midway through its transformation into a modern lifestyle and entertainment center. That began in 2013 with new fixtures and picked up speed in 2015 when Westfield demolished the vacant Saks Fifth Avenue and built a Cobb CineBistro on that site. It's been a 14-month gap between that opening and the new LA Fitness, but Westfield has been busy. The mall also has five restaurant spaces, a day spa and a new coffee shop under construction. Meanwhile, Benderson Development Co., which owns the old Dillard's anchor, has a Lucky's Market in the works adjacent to the LA Fitness.
It's a big moment for a property that's struggled since the Mall at University Town Center opened in 2014. That $315 million mall siphoned off tenants from Southgate, diluted the retail market and left the high-end shopping center in need of a whole new identity.
And it only takes a quick drive around the property to see that the mall is getting much more than a makeover.
I stopped in on Thursday morning and met with Natalie Adams, LA Fitness' district operations manager for Southwest Florida, and Christa Kremer, the marketing director for Southgate and its sister property Westfield Sarasota Square.
In this increasingly difficult retail climate filled with bankruptcies and closeout sales, it's unusual to see brick-and-mortar players excited, but Kremer and Adams were beaming.
Adams told me she's already seen a strong response from the community. Florida is an active place, and even though she has an LA Fitness just five miles east on Cattlemen Road, she says there's a strong demand for another one.
The new center will have child care, volleyball and basketball leagues, and may eventually offer as many as 30 classes. LA Fitness' new prototype features a special space for its personal training clients and extra space for its members to gather. It's the kind of place where their clients can linger, visit and be recognized. Just like the old TV show "Cheers," she says, but it's a gym, not a bar. The center will have a nutritionist on staff too, which pairs nicely with LA Fitness' organic-focus neighbor. Once Lucky's Market opens this summer, the gym's members will have relatively immediate access to whatever supplements or foods the nutritionist recommends.
It's that kind of continuity that's exciting for Kremer.
The mall's newest tenants fit together, she told me. Lucky's Market, LA Fitness and the upcoming L'Core day spa have a wellness element to them, and there's a social aspect that comes with the restaurants and coffee shop.
The new identity that mall owners have been working on isn't just about shopping. It's about living.
National retail reports overwhelmingly show that people are increasingly spending more money on experiences than they did before the Great Recession.
If that's true here, things may be finally working out for the mall.
Or at the very least, with LA Fitness there — people will be.
Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune's retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at email@example.com Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read her daily blog at whatsinstore.blogs.heraldtribune.com.
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The following correction was published on SAturday, April 29, 2017 A story in Friday's edition incorrectly stated that LA Fitness has a nutritionist on site at their new local operation. The chain has a nutritionist who provides information through its website.