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Pier Redevelopment Success Sets Stage for More Open-Air Retail Concepts

Pandemic-Era Retail Start-Ups Prosper in Outdoor Environment

The St. Pete Pier Marketplace in St. Petersburg, Florida. (City of St. Petersburg)
The St. Pete Pier Marketplace in St. Petersburg, Florida. (City of St. Petersburg)

The completion of the St. Pete Pier Marketplace in St. Petersburg, Florida coincided with the onset of the pandemic, enabling existing as well as new retailers to generate profits. Now, this open-air retail concept is being considered for other redevelopment projects in the area.

Apparel-maker Keisha Long-Watson started out making the merchandise for her business in her house, then meeting customers for pickup outside a local Dollar Tree store. But thanks to the support she received from the operators of the St. Pete Pier Marketplace , she is now set to open her own brick-and-mortar store.

Long-Watson, owner of InSparkleMe Bling Apparel, thanks her entry into the St. Pete Pier Marketplace for her expansion, noting that “Everything happened after the pier.”

Timing is Everything

There’s a bigger success story at the Pier Marketplace, where retailers and city officials are optimistic after opening in the summer of 2020 in the midst of pandemic lockdowns. Designed as an open-air, small business complement to the city’s 26-acre, restaurant-anchored Pier District, the St. Pete Pier Marketplace not only survived, but thrived during the pandemic.

The marketplace will soon expand to 24 vendors, up from an initial 17, 16 of which opened along with the marketplace when it debuted in 2020.

“People said ‘you're crazy opening a $100 million asset in the middle of the pandemic,” Chris Ballestra, managing director of development at the City of St. Petersburg, told LoopNet. But he countered that “it gave people a 26-acre outdoor platform to get out of the house.”

Outdoor areas became and continue to be prime destinations for people needing to change their environments, spurring retailers across the country to lease space at open-air shopping centers since the start of pandemic restrictions nearly two years ago. In fact, landlords filled 17 million square feet of open-air shopping centers during the third quarter of 2021, according to CBRE data reported by The Wall Street Journal. That’s up 49% from 2019 and marked a 10-year high for net absorption, or the total space occupied minus what was vacated.

Landlords in the Tampa Bay metropolitan area reported nearly 473,000 square feet of net absorption in open-air shopping centers in the third quarter of 2021, according to data from Colliers. That’s the most in a quarter for the metro area since at least 2010.

‘We Opened the Door’

But back in the early days of the pandemic, the outlook for new retail wasn’t so certain. Against this backdrop, city officials offered discounted rents and non-binding, short-term leases for no longer than 12 months at the Pier Marketplace to entice small businesses that couldn’t afford traditional brick-and-mortar spaces.

The city received 70 applications after putting out an open call to retailers. Some small business collectives, like One Community in St. Petersburg, moved nine black-owned businesses into one stall at the Pier Marketplace. The result was an eclectic mix of retailers selling everything from apparel and accessories to prints and pre-packaged food. Long-Watson, of InSparkleMe Bling Apparel, was part of the collective and found success selling rhinestone-adorned masks to pier visitors.

“We opened the door for a lot of makers and operators in our city here,” said Stephanie Addis, director of retail services at Colliers. She obtained applications from interested vendors, maintained the wait-list and signed and renewed agreements.

Replicating Success

Addis believes the success of the Pier Marketplace can be replicated at properties with significant outdoor space or excessive parking, such as shopping centers or malls. But she cautioned, there are limits to where an outdoor market can work. Raw, undeveloped land may not be suitable for vendors needing access to water or electricity, Addis said. And there should be someone akin to a property manager at the property to ensure the vendors are in the right locations, open on time and can solve any problems that might arise.

“It would be a little labor-intensive for the landlord and tenants,” Addis said. “You really do need to have someone on-site.”

Ballestra said open-air markets might be key to creating a “destination within a destination” at future development sites in St. Petersburg. Among them is Tropicana Field, the ballpark and 86-acre property that is expected to be vacated within the decade by Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.

“I appreciate the community’s response,” Ballestra said. “Frankly, they took a chance on us, and we took a chance on them because it was a big experiment. We look forward to this in perpetuity.”

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