For a guy who recently landed a major traffic draw for a decades dormant commercial property, Tommy Hodges sounds downright bearish when assessing the Little Rock development scene.
"I don't think we're out of this funk," said Hodges of the market conditions.
His cautious take is understandable given the history of what was long advertised as the site of the Otter Creek Mall.
That ultra slow-burn fuse of a prospect measured in years of disappointment and inactivity has given way to the Gateway Town Center. The land at the northwest corner of Interstates 430 and 30 played host to unprecedented good news in June when Bass Pro Shops of Springfield, Mo., trumpeted that it would set up shop on 30 acres.
Next door, Joe Jackson Sr. of Boca Raton, Fla., and Rich Rucker of Silverdale, Wash., intend to develop a 265,000-SF outlet mall on land they have under contract.
Their 30-acre tract adjoins the east side of the Bass Pro property.
The regional retailer of hunting, fishing and outdoor supplies has toyed with entering the market for nearly a decade. Unlike past proposals, the company took the plunge, signed a purchase agreement for its property and announced plans to build a 120,000-SF store without seeking government subsidies.
Hodges expects the Bass Pro land sale to close this fall, with more activity trailing in the months to come.
First Security Bank of Searcy has a site under contract, and Hodges is working on a deal that could result in a second bank project.
"We're hoping to get Bass Pro under construction in October," he said. "We have the outlet mall that we think is a year behind them. We're going to be
busy this fall building the Bass Pro and with streets, utilities and such."
Hodges expects the sale of the outlet mall property to close and construction to begin by next summer. In addition to the retail projects in motion, three hotels and five restaurants are on the drawing board with office buildings planned for the west side of the property.
"It's going to have all the non-residential uses you can think of," Hodges said. "Town center pretty much describes what we're trying to do."
The mixed-use character of the development plan is a departure from past retail-dominated configurations. Plans for the commercial property morphed from a proposed 1.2 million-SF mall in 1980 to a 578,000-SF lifestyle center supported by a 172,000-SF power center and more in 2006.
"In this environment, it is not possible to develop retail property in the traditional ways of the past," Hodges said. "What's going on in the nation is a lot of outlet malls. There will probably be 20 developed around the country this year."
With the Bass Pro and outlet mall sites under contract, about 100 acres remains to be marketed at Gateway Town Center. Hodges said there was a possibility to do some land leases or build-to-suit deals.
"But by and large, we're looking at selling land," he said.
The southern part of the I-430 corridor is drawing more attention from retailers looking for west Little Rock sites as the market has improved.
Occupancy at Shackleford Crossings (about 80 percent) and The Promenade at Chenal (nearly 90 percent) continues to make gains after the financial meltdown stalled activity.
Undeveloped land at the Col. Glenn exit of I-430 has become a popular destination for prospective deals searching for a home.
"There's been a lot of activity but nothing that has solidified," said Eric Boen, a partner in Commercial Realty LLC.
Boen's family is part of an investment group that owns the northwest corner of Col. Glenn Road and I-430 slated for development as the Village at Brodie Creek.
Crain Ford is building a new complex on a 7.5-acre piece of the property purchased for $3.2 million. The dealership represents the first project to start construction at the 80-acre mixed-use development.
Crain Ford is one of three auto dealerships under construction near the Col. Glenn exit of I-430. New locations for Ellis Infiniti and Landers Chrysler Dodge Jeep also are taking shape to the south of the Crain dealership.
As construction of the auto dealerships progresses, more potential deals are circling the Village at Brodie Creek.
"The owners are committed to sit tight until we find the right anchor for it, whether it's retail or something else," said Hank Kelley, a partner in the project.
"We think our time is coming with the opening of the Crain dealership and some of the development work now behind us and some of the commercial sites around us being consumed."
The Bass Pro Shops deal marks the second spark of activity in two years on Little Rock property long envisioned for commercial development.
Town Center LLC, led by Tommy Hodges, sold a 9.05-acre site Sep-tember 2010 for $910,000 to Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores Inc. of Oklahoma City.
The super convenience store/truck stop that followed is the first completed commercial project on a site originally labeled as the future home of the Otter Creek Mall.
Until Love's, the property lay dormant as a proposed development for nearly 40 years.
While the Love's project broke the ice, Bass Pro Shops is expected to be a bell cow of the highest order with a string of development activity to follow.
Dan Robinson, a veteran player on the Little Rock real estate scene, said that striking a deal with Bass Pro Shops underscores more than eight years of
persistence by Hodges.
"That's going to cause no telling how many more retailers to go in out there," Robinson said. "What Tommy accomplished is a major, major watershed for development.
"It was a grand dream and has taken far longer to develop than anyone thought. But now the dominoes have fallen, and it will be a bright spot in Little Rock."
Robinson, president of NAI Dan Robinson & Associates, was a small investor in the original Otter Creek limited partnership formed in 1971 but no longer has an interest in the property.
"Only emotionally," he said. "I have a lot of pride in it, and I'm tickled to see the progress."
Hodges led the 2002 effort to buy and expand the original 120-acre Otter Creek Mall site in deals totaling more than $2.4 million.
The land was assembled from Canadian Pacific Properties Inc. of Alberta, Calgary, $1.46 million; Otter Creek Development Co. LLC, led by Robert McGinnis and Byron Eiseman, $784,000; Cynthia Keaton, $143,000; and Jennifer Mae Kochtitzky Trust No. 2, $81,390.
Infighting among partners, competitive developments in the market and economic downturns combined to keep the Otter Creek Mall site vacant for all these years.
"There's been more stops and starts to Otter Creek Mall probably than any other commercial project in Little Rock," Robinson said. "There's always been something that screwed it up.