Ohio developer announces plans for open-air shopping center in Bluffton

September 16, 2011 

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An Ohio-based developer announced plans Friday for an open-air shopping center on U.S. 278 in Bluffton near Buckwalter Parkway that could one day include an apartment complex and a hotel.

Tentatively called the Shoppes at Willow Run, the 144-acre development would cost between $80 million and $120 million and could generate 1,000 full- and part-time jobs, according to Equity, Inc. senior vice president for retail development Ron Leslie.

The shopping center would have 550,000 square feet of retail space to house a mix of specialty shops and big-box retailers adding up to about 45 stores. Most of the square footage would be dedicated to big box retailers, one of which has already been identified, according to the developer's marketing materials. Leslie declined to name the stores that have signed on but said he is "working on paperwork with them."

"I'll let the anchor tenants have their own press releases," Leslie said.

The development should break ground next fall and be open in time for the 2013 holiday shopping season.

Bluffton town manager Anthony Barrett said the developer has been in talks with the town since November 2010 and that the stores planned for the center have "been on many citizens' wish lists for years."

"This would be a major commercial project at a time when there is absolutely no commercial development," Barrett said in an email.

An application for the development has not been submitted, according to growth management director Marc Orlando.

Because the property is part of the Buckwalter planned unit development, it already is zoned for more than 700,00 square feet of commercial space. Leslie said the Shoppes at Willow Run could grow from the square footage already planned.

The project must still go through the planning process, which includes approval of a master plan and a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Willow Run site is about two miles from the Okatie River in the Okatie River watershed and contains about 37 acres of wetlands. The development would adhere to Bluffton's most recent stormwater ordinance, which includes volume controls, said Greg Baisch, project manager with engineering and site-planning firm Ward Edwards.

It should not disturb more than 35 percent of the wetlands on the site, and most of the acreage is upland. Plans for dealing with polluted run-off include restoring wetlands and using permeable surfaces, Baisch said.

The project would "not only protect but improve the water quality there," Baisch said. Andrea Malloy, interim director of the Coastal Conservation League's South Coast Office, said she is not familiar with plans for the project. She said she supported money flowing in to the economy but that she hoped the development would not overlap with the May River watershed.

The project is conceived primarily as a retail development, but market conditions could lead to residential development and a hotel, Leslie said. The town is particularly interested in the hotel that could also provide meeting and banquet facilities, he added.

Barrett said a hotel would increase town tax revenues and give visitors and business travelers a place to stay.

Equity Inc. is based in Columbus and has offices in Tampa and Orlando. The company is the 16th-largest health care developer in the country, according to it's website. Leslie said he was hired to grow the company's retail development operations.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.

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Tanger outlets fill most store spaces; last four spots in negotiations, Aug. 16, 2011

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