For nearly 20 years, Sandy and Michael Huang have seen businesses come and go in the Courthouse Shadows strip shopping center in East Naples.
“The restaurant next door has changed six times,” Michael Huang said last week.
Co-owners of the Sze-Chuan Chinese Restaurant across U.S. 41 from the Collier County Government Complex, the Huangs witnessed one more change this week. This one, they’re looking forward to.
What used to be an Albertsons opened as a Publix at 8 a.m. Thursday.
That means there will, again, be actual traffic in the half-deserted strip, owned by Kite Realty. Most of the remaining occupants are chain stores. Not Sze-Chuan.
Since 1989, Michael Huang and his partners have relied on word of mouth about the quality of their food, and traffic to whatever other shops have been in business at the time.
“I remember when Wal-Mart was here,” he said. “Then, they moved across the street.”
On one side of Huang is an ever-changing restaurant. On the other side, Blockbuster Video.
At the other end of the center is West Marine and Payless ShoeSource.
The shopping center’s profile notes that there are more than 3,000 daytime workers in the government complex.
Albertsons was considered an anchor tenant, as is Office Max, which is in its own separate building.
And now, Publix.
Sandy Huang agreed that there has been a noticeable lack of traffic since Albertsons shut down.
Before the Publix opened Thursday, it was clear to daily shopping center visitors that cars pulled in, stopped in front of the Publix shell, and drove away when they realized it still wasn’t open. There’s also an H&R Block in that shopping center.
Publix bought some Florida Albertsons stores in August for some $500 million.
What will make this Publix special — besides bringing new life to the shopping center — is the separate 3,500 square foot liquor store it also bought from Albertsons, and integration of GreenWise products, the Publix natural food line, said company spokeswoman Shannon Patten.
While some stores have just gone out of business, such as a dollar store, some businesses are doing well.
“I think we’ll definitely get more business from Publix than we did from Albertsons,” said West Marine cashier/associate Christina Saldana.
However, they boating supply store hasn’t suffered from the gaping hole in the center of the strip.
“Sales were up for us this year,” she said this week.
Even though the Huangs offer a wide selection of mild and spicy Asian favorites that consistently draw full-time and seasonal residents, Sandy Huang is grateful that Publix is finally opening.
Empty storefronts discourage traffic. Empty parking lots are creepy.
“The more stores that are here, the more traffic will show up,” Michael Huang said.
Sandy Huang agreed.
“Publix will liven up the plaza,” said Sandy Huang.
That’s Kite Realty’s hope too.
While the firm has had some nibbles of interest from local restaurants that might want to relocate, the economy has made most cautious.
“People want to see what the Publix brings in,” said Ryan Joyce, Kite’s Florida spokesman.
Joyce said he took a tour of the new almost-finished Publix last week.
“It’s like a brand new Publix,” Joyce said.
The Publix folks went in and tore out anything Albertsons and completely rebuilt within the shell: the colors and finishing touches are definitely those of a newly built Publix, he said.
The new Publix also has a pharmacy, which also opened Thursday morning, said spokeswoman Jenni Stackpole.