'Rebirth' declared for Bluffton's Berkeley Place shopping center

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comJune 21, 2013 

Bluffton town officials and business owners are heralding Berkeley Place, which has been spruced up by new ownership and management.

Two years ago the shopping center -- which includes Cinemark Theater, Cheeburger Cheeburger and Outback Steakhouse -- was in foreclosure.

Its future looked bleak, as its owner, Sea Turtle Entertainment, owed more than $30 million on a $23.5 million loan it obtained in 2007.

But in January, Garrison Investment Group of New York purchased much of the shopping center from Wells Fargo for more than $7 million, according to a company official. The center is now managed by Sperry Van Ness/Bosley Asset Management of Hilton Head Island.

Five new tenants -- a Mexican restaurant, orthodontist office, nail salon, bakery and snack shop -- have opened or are in the process of opening since the center's purchase.

A current tenant, Berkeley Flowers and Gifts, also expanded into an additional suite.

"We are determined to see Berkeley Place become the premier shopping, entertainment and service center it was originally intended to be," said William Bosley, owner and director of Bosley Asset Management.

A "grand reopening celebration," including a ribbon-cutting, has been scheduled from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 29.

"The town of Bluffton is very excited about the rebirth of Berkeley Place," said Councilwoman Karen Lavery in a news release. "As a resident of the community, I remember the excitement the Bluffton community had when Berkeley Place was constructed."

The center opened in late 2005 after several delays and encountered problems during the recession. Many businesses left the center or declared bankruptcy because lease costs were too high, said Patricia Miller, the property's asset manager.

She added that Sea Turtle Entertainment couldn't lower the rent because it owed so much. Sea Turtle went bankrupt in 2011 after failing to make payments on its loan with Wells Fargo since 2008. Wells Fargo foreclosed on the property and bought back much of the shopping center, including the theater, in a 2011 foreclosure auction.

The bank was the lone bidder, offering $10 million, according to Beaufort County court records. Cinemark Holdings later bought Sea Turtle Cinemas that same year and converted the 12-screen theater to digital projection.

Garrison Investment now owns 125,700 square feet of the development's 157,315 square feet of retail and commercial space.

Tenants' lease payments are almost half as much, and occupancy is back up, Miller said.

"What was 75 to 80 percent occupied went down to about 50 percent," she said. "Now, about 67 percent of the center is occupied."

Miller said Garrison Investment Group and her company intend to "aggressively market" the shopping center through a new merchants' association and website: www.berkeleyplacebluffton.com.

Jacky Zhao, owner of Chin Dynasty China Bistro & Sushi, welcomes the change.

"They're giving the center a new, refreshing look and taking care of neglected maintenance issues," Zhao said of new landscaping, signs and lights and power-washed buildings.

"It's been great to see new tenants move in and look forward to seeing more."

Drs. Travis Fiegle and Skeet Burris of Winning Orthodontic Smiles chose the center to open a new office because of the improvements made and the area's growth potential.

"The new management and ownership have really elevated the center within the last five months," Fiegle said, "... making it nicer and more affordable for tenants, which has allowed new businesses to move in and (has attracted) new customers who can see the rebirth."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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