Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo
NAPLES — Face lifts are all the rage in Southwest Florida, but that doesn't mean plastic surgeons are working overtime.
Instead, shopping centers and stand-alone businesses across the region are the ones getting the makeover. And experts said recently those renovations are a way to keep tenants happy and vacancy rates low in older, often out-of-date shopping centers.
"During the recession, commercial vacancy went way up and landlords got stuck with vacant space," said John Fleming, director of communications at the Florida Retail Federation. "But in the past couple of years, what we've seen is the economy has started to warm up a little bit and people are more willing to invest in real estate."
Those investments, Fleming said, can vary from a fresh coat of paint to a total facade renovation, much like the one going on at Naples Plaza in central Naples.
City officials last year approved a request to demolish and rebuild the Publix in the Naples Plaza, across U.S. 41 from the Coastland Center mall.
That project has been under way for months, and Publix officials have said they plan to open the new 56,000-square-foot hybrid Publix in December. The whole plaza is also being renovated, with new paint, signs and landscaping being added to improve the overall feel of the shopping center.
A spokeswoman for Brixmor Property Group, the plaza's owner, told the Daily News in June that once the renovation is complete the plaza will be the "absolute premier shopping center in the area."
Jesse Balaity, owner of Sarasota-based Balaity Property Enhancement, said shopping centers with a large anchor tenant, like a Publix, are more likely to see vast renovations than smaller, locally owned centers.
"It seems like smaller properties just can't do it," Balaity said. "It's only the big guys."
Balaity should know. His firm has been involved with the ongoing renovations at Bell Tower Shops in Fort Myers since 2006. Balaity said the company had to scale back original plans because of the economy, but ultimately settled on a long-term plan that would address both the look and the makeup of the shopping center.
The Bell Tower project was started, Balaity said, in part to make it more competitive with nearby Coconut Point mall in Estero. The competitive nature of the industry is one of the main reasons developers and shopping center owners decide to renovate their properties, Balaity said.
Karen Johnson-Crowther, managing director of retail services for Colliers International Southwest Florida, said investing in the property doesn't always mean tearing down a building and starting from scratch. Johnson-Crowther said property owners need to take into account the neighborhood and make sure they're not over-improving.
"It all depends on how you want to position the property," Johnson-Crowther said. "It's just like being in a neighborhood. (Sometimes) a coat of paint and a new ... sign might do wonders for a center."
Phil McCabe, a downtown Naples property owner, knows the value of a renovation: In recent years, many of McCabe's Fifth Avenue South properties underwent some form of renovation, whether it be a total tear-down or a simple facade update.
Those renovations helped business over the years, especially during difficult economic times, McCabe said.
A makeover to the plaza in the 400 block of Fifth Avenue South — home to Cafe Luna and Avenue Wine Cafe — was one of the most amazing transformations, McCabe said. He turned a parking lot into a landscaped area and increased parking in the rear of the building. That change allowed for outdoor seating, which was a "real bonus to ... tenants in the restaurant business."
"It made their business," he said. "Those improvements, in my opinion, made the block."
McCabe last year made smaller facade changes to his properties in the 500 block of Fifth Avenue South, and the Inn on Fifth, his hotel, is undergoing total renovation.
"I look at future opportunities for how to increase the interest on the street, the success of the street and the architecture of the building," McCabe said about his renovations. "You have to be out there and be on the leading edge of how you want to capture the customer."