The Inverness Regional Shopping Center on U.S. 41 has for years been the poster child for blight on the county’s east side.
But a new owner and a new property management group have taken the reins of the struggling plaza with hopes of returning the once-vibrant plaza back to respectability.
"It won’t happen overnight because the decline was years in the making", said Andrew Podray, who is committed to filling up the empty storefronts with retailers. No bulldozing the property to make way for housing, as has been rumored.
“This is a long-term project,” said Podray, who’s visited the site twice already. “I want to reinvigorate the plaza.”
As of July 2, Podray became part of the management entity called the Inverness Regional LLC. He is in the process of formally obtaining ownership of the plaza and he expects the transaction to be completed no later than Aug. 31.
“I’ll be the guy making decisions on the ground,” he said.
This plaza is not in as bad of shape as many believe, Podray said. In fact, when he learned of it and visited the site, it became a no-brainer to buy it and bring it back to life.
“It’s not like this (plaza) is in the middle of nowhere,” Podray said. “This isn’t as rural as it first appears. It’s one of the best deals that I’ve ever closed,” he added.
The Inverness Regional Shopping Plaza was once home to Kmart, Publix and other stores but is now down to five tenants. Bealls Outlet is the biggest of the bunch.
Podray paid $2.3 million for the 200,000 square-foot property that sits on 20 acres at 1510 North U.S. 41.
“To build a plaza of this size (today) on that acreage and with those amenities would cost in excess of $20 million,” Podray said.
In 2015, the shopping center went through foreclosure and public auction and reverted back to the mortgage holder. Wells Fargo Bank, trustee for the noteholder, started the foreclosure process in February 2015. Prior to foreclosure, the property had been on the market.
The center was financed in 2005 for $10.2 million, with about $8.5 million due when it reached foreclosure.
Podray said he’s already reached out to the five tenants that remain to solidify their leases at attractive prices.
He gives them credit for sticking through the turmoil of the last several years while the place was in foreclosure and the future was uncertain.
Podray said the downside to the deal are obvious: U.S. 41 is in bad need of widening. Nearby Whispering Pines Park prohibits residential development.
But he said the pluses are many: it is within walking distance to vibrant downtown Inverness; because of its condition and circumstances, he can offer attractive leases to existing and new tenants. And, of course, the $2.3 million cost helps ensure he makes a profit when revitalizing is complete.
“Nobody has to lose on this,” he said.
Podray figures it will take $500,000 to $750,000 to fix the roofs, pressure-clean tiles, add landscaping and make other cosmetic improvements. The parking lot asphalt is still in good shape.
"Most of the stores closed recently enough so the air condition systems are still in good working order", he said
“I thought the general appearance and facade of the plaza was in good shape,” he said.
Podray said the city of Inverness has already reached out to him and he expects a good working relationship moving forward on permits and other matters.
Podray owns American Housing Enterprises, a real estate holding company in Boynton Beach that specializes in distressed multi-family, retail and office properties.
He makes money on buying these properties at a good price and then fixing them up for profit.
“I don’t flip (properties),” he said. “This is a long-term play."
Podray said he knows it is difficult for brick-and-mortar stores to thrive in the environment of online shopping. But with the right mix of stores, it’s doable, he said.
For Inverness Regional Shopping Center, he envisions a self storage company and possibly stores like Ollie’s Bargain Outlet and Roses discount store.
Podray said he has heard the rumors about turning the plaza into a mixed-use property, possibly with housing.
That idea is economically untenable, he said, especially in that area.
Patty Malia, property manager associate with Bruce Strumpf Inc., the Clearwater-based property management company - which also took over July 2 - paid a visit to the plaza Wednesday and met with tenants while surveying the site.
She will prepare a report for the owner on the condition of the immediate and long-term needs of the plaza and how much it will cost to bring the landscaping and storefronts back to respectability.
“I pick out every little thing,” Malia said. “We know we’re not doing everything in the first six months.”
It took a long time for the plaza to get so bad and it’s going to take awhile to get it back in shape, she said.
The change in ownership is already having an effect, according to Margarita Platero, manager of the plaza’s anchor store Bealls Outlet.
Since the new property manager leasing signs have gone up throughout the windows on most of the empty stores, she said she's gotten inquiries from prospective tenants.
"There seemed to be a reluctance before when the bank owned it", she said. "Now, they sense a new seriousness in the air that maybe this plaza will come back to life", she said.
Podray agrees. "A bank is really not the ideal landlord. Having a property management company whose business it is to work with and attract tenants is the best scenario", he said.
"The location can’t be beat", Malia said, "with the U.S. 41 corridor in front and so many residents who live nearby. It is within walking distance to the downtown area."
"There are still people", she said, "who want to see this plaza come back."
“We still have a lot of loyal customers who like to shop in this area,” Platero said.
Platero would like to see the plaza house crafts stores and a tractor supply outlet. A Michaels craft store or Jo-Ann fabrics store would be big draws, she said.