When Jacksonville native Paisley Boney IV was selling retailers on the opportunity to lease space on more than 200 undeveloped acres in the middle of Jacksonville, he took to the skies.
There, in a helicopter, Boney would show off the many rooftops and road networks in Northeast Florida where shoppers lived that would support the vision he and developer Ben Carter were selling.
“Paisley was terrific at that,” recalled Simon Executive Vice President Thomas Schneider.
That land became St. Johns Town Center, a regional “main street” and lifestyle center at Butler Boulevard and Interstate 295. It brought in the area’s first and only Nordstrom, Tiffany & Co., Apple store, The Cheesecake Factory and dozens of others exclusive in the market.
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Simon, a mall developer and owner based in Indianapolis, was a 50-50 partner in the deal with Ben Carter Properties, which included Carter, Boney and other employees and members of the Carter family.
“When tenants needed to come down to Jacksonville to take a site tour, you couldn’t have better people do that site tour than Paisley. I was up in a helicopter with him many times, and he was up in a helicopter many more times than I was,” Schneider said.
Schneider said that Boney, being from Jacksonville, knew how the area grew and why.
“He was selling the market, selling the site and selling the dream to the tenants,” he said.
‘Where the next deal is’
Boney remembers those flights with prospects, with him and Carter “in the helicopter trying to convince these people ‘yeah, you can do it.’”
The deal began long ago, culminating in Phase One opening in 2005, Phase Two in 2007 and Phase Three in 2014. It’s grown to 1.4 million square feet of retail and restaurant space, surrounded by more shopping-center projects, apartments and a suites hotel.
Atlanta-based developer Ben Carter Properties and its group held a 50 percent ownership of St. Johns Town Center.
The group sold its half last year to Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management for a reported $375 million. Simon Property Group continues to own the other half.
Boney said he had known Carter for years before they went into business together. They developed other malls before the Town Center.
Before the Town Center became their twinkle in the sky, they saw the vision.
“Ben is a great, great visionary guy. He started out as a very successful land broker. It doesn’t take long before his brain is spinning and figuring out where the next deal is,” Boney said.
Their question was whether there was a market for another department store-anchored development between The Avenues mall, at Southside Boulevard and Philips Highway, and Regency Square Mall, at Southside and Atlantic boulevards.
Both were familiar with affluent Ponte Vedra Beach — Carter’s family had property there, Boney spent time there growing up and vacationing.
The two watched the demographics continue to improve in Ponte Vedra with wealth moving in and luxury homes going up, often as primary residences rather than houses built as vacation getaways or second homes.
That population wasn’t large enough for a large-scale, high-end development, however. Carter and Boney began looking at the residential expansion along the Intracoastal Waterway and west into San Pablo, the Hodges and Kernan boulevards corridors, along Florida 9A and the Gate Parkway and Deerwood Park areas.
When plans were confirmed to convert Florida 9A into the Interstate 295 East Beltway, opening the area to a regional traffic flow, the siting became clear.
The center of that universe was the Town Center site, owned by the A.C. Skinner family, longtime landowners, and family friends of Carter and Boney.
Carter and Boney, based in Atlanta, already were building high-end centers. They opened the Mall of Georgia in 1999 with five department stores, including the luxury Nordstrom retailer. Simon was a partner and co-developer of the mall.
Boney said at the time, the Sunshine State was a new market for Nordstrom.
He said The Rouse Co., a large development company based in Maryland, was showing Nordstrom around potential developments in Florida and one of the places was Jacksonville. Rouse was no stranger in Jacksonville, having developed the Jacksonville Landing.
Yet, Carter already had a strong relationship with Nordstrom. “I remember a couple of meetings in Seattle and they said, ‘Yes, we can do Jacksonville. But we need to see who has the best site.’ So we quickly went to the A.C. Skinners,” Boney said.
As did Rouse.
The two companies competed for the Skinner site. “And we got that site,” Boney said.
He said it couldn’t have been easy for the Skinners because Rouse was one of the largest mall developers and had a big balance sheet. Yet, Boney said the Carter group put the land under contract in 2000 with the A.C. Skinner family.
It was a welcome surprise.
“We were more of a PT boat versus Rouse, who was more like an aircraft carrier. We were the fast-moving deal makers, but had a lot of credibility with the Skinners. They knew us obviously and knew our parents and knew the commitment we had to Jacksonville,” Boney said.
He said the Skinners vacationed in North Carolina, north of the Mall of Georgia, and would drive by the recently opened mall.
“I think that was a big reason for why they picked us.”
Arthur Chester “Chip” Skinner III agreed.
“They were nothing but straight up with us. Paisley, having grown up in Jacksonville, knew the players. We had known each other for years. It was a pleasure to have him in the deal,” Skinner said.
And Boney, Skinner said, had a straightforward way with retailers to put deals together.
Boney said Rouse then eyed property at Baymeadows and Florida 9A owned by another branch of the Skinner family, to compete for a site for a shopping center.
He said it took several months for Nordstrom to give the nod that “we think the Ben Carter guys have the better site so we’re going with them.’”
Simon joins the development
Ben Carter Properties also had a relationship with Simon, having opened Mall of Georgia with it as a 50-50 partner in August 1999.
Boney said when they put the Skinner land under contract and were talking with prospective tenants, Carter called Simon CEO David Simon to say Ben Carter Properties was working on a project that might compete with The Avenues.
Simon was familiar with the market because of its ownership in The Avenues and the Orange Park malls.
By then, Carter and Boney had the land deal together and were working through site approvals. Schneider said Simon was familiar with the competing site, but preferred the Skinner area.
“If we were going to do anything at all, it would be there,” Schneider said.
Jacobson’s, Lord & Taylor wanted in
In the early days of creating the Town Center, Boney said he and Carter were negotiating letters of intent with Nordstrom, Dillard’s, Jacobson’s and Lord & Taylor.
Dillard’s came onboard quickly to build a flagship store, Boney said. The retailer had just opened at the Mall of Georgia and Carter had a strong relationship with CEO Bill Dillard.
Dillard’s already had several stores in Jacksonville, with what Boney said were the highest sales of any other department stores in Jacksonville. It also realized that the national Federated Department Stores could be a big competitor.
Jacobson’s had a local presence as an anchor in the former upscale Grande Boulevard Mall in Baymeadows. The mall’s marketing concept didn’t work and many stores left. Florida Community College at Jacksonville began using part of the building, eventually buying all of it. Jacobson’s wanted a new location.
Lord & Taylor, an anchor at the Mall of Georgia, was owned by the May Co., which owned the former May Cohens locations in Jacksonville for a while before selling those and leaving town.
Boney said the group also was in discussions with Federated, which had several brands. One was Burdines, the Florida chain whose closest store was in Gainesville. It also owned Rich’s, which had just opened at the Mall of Georgia, too.
There also were discussions with Macy’s, which had just opened in West Palm Beach, he said.
There were some discussions that maybe Jacksonville, demographically and psychographically, was a bit more like a South Georgia town and it might be a better Rich’s market, Boney said
That confusion was resolved when Federated reflagged all of its stores as Macy’s.
“Aside from the economy at the time, I think part of the big obstacle they had was given the strength of Dillard’s presence, they needed to have more than one store,” Boney said.
Dillard’s and Belk, which ended up with the former May Cohens locations, each already had several Jacksonville area stores.
“So the challenge (for Macy’s) was, if we go to St. Johns Town Center, where do we go do the other three or the other two? Do we do Regency, Avenues, Orange Park? All of those were full,” Boney recalled.
Then came national events that changed the course.
Events change the plans
The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the dot-com bust of the early 2000s created economic uncertainty for retailers across the country.
“It was very easy for department stores to not make decisions at that time,” Boney said.
Boney said Jacobson’s, Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom all said they couldn’t go forward at the time. Jacobson’s no longer exists.
Dillard’s CEO Bill Dillard stayed committed and the department store became the sole major anchor.
With the other department stores out of the initial game plan, the strategy changed.
“We had to quickly figure out a whole new mousetrap,” Boney said. “And we needed more time from the Skinners.”
That opened the door for Target, Old Navy, Ross Dress for Less and DSW, not your typical high-end shopping tenants. In the original plan, there wasn’t room for the big-box power center retailers, Boney said.
To accommodate them and their parking needs while maintaining an upscale development, Ben Carter Properties and Simon designed two connected centers — a power center of big-box stores bridged by a central community area to the “Main Street” design of the more exclusive retailers.
How do you get Target, Dillard’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Apple and P.F. Chang’s happy with their locations?
“That’s some of the art in it. And the only way you do that is having a lot of conversations directly with those retailers,” Boney said.
Boney said the group worked through more than 100 site plans with the retailers.
“And if they didn’t like the plan, we would hand them a pen and tell them to draw what they’d like,” he said.
Ultimately, they had a layout that made everyone happy.
Town Center’s first-phase success was no secret to the retailers and restaurants around the country, exceeding expectations.
Then came the second phase, which was another winning hand with the higher-end stores like Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton and The Capital Grille.
Then came the third phase with, finally, Nordstrom, considered “a real game changer for Jacksonville” when it committed to the market, Boney said. It opened in October as the Phase Three anchor.
Macy’s, Saks and Neiman Marcus
Boney said after phase two, Macy’s interest continued and it considered coming to the market with just one store, but timing was a factor at Town Center.
“Our challenge to some extent was that we were really running out of land,” he said.
Also, he said Town Center owners were looking for department stores that would further differentiate the project and bring in a top-of-the-line luxury retailer, like Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. Both had stores in Orlando and were familiar with Northeast Florida.
“Frankly our vision for the remaining land was waiting for a Neiman’s or a Saks,” Boney said.
Back then, Saks Inc. owned the upscale Parisian chain, which had one Jacksonville store at The Avenues mall.
“Their dilemma was Parisian really wasn’t doing that well. If Parisian isn’t doing that well, then how will Saks do well?” Boney said.
Belk ended up buying 38 Parisian stores, including the Avenues location. Not needing two stores at the mall, Parisian was converted to house some Belk departments, but those later were moved back to the original store. The Parisian space now is a Forever 21.
As for Neiman Marcus, it took one of those helicopter tours.
Boney said the retailer already knew by its credit-card history that it had customers on Ponte Vedra Boulevard along the oceanfront and Ortega Boulevard and River Road along both sides of the St. Johns River.
The helicopter tour allowed the Carter group to point out the big waterfront homes — something you can’t do just driving down the road.
“You see them from the river or ocean, we go ‘wow, ‘and they look down (from a helicopter) and they go ‘Wow, that is my customer. No question about it.’”
Boney said it also was the best way to show how the road systems and bridges connected the city – and how the St. Johns Town Center site was in the center.
But Neiman Marcus, too, held back after the recession, he said.
Boney said the Carter group sold its 50 percent interest as the Phase Three lease deals were in place and capitalization rates were at all-time lows.
“If you are ever going to sell, now is a great time,” he said.
Being out of the ownership group for a year, Boney said it’s up to Simon and Deutsche to decide which department store might be next, although he believes the decision is to save that land for one of the upper-scale stores.
And there’s one more addition he expects — a new full-service hotel. “That location screams that’s the spot for it,” he said. “I think the day will come for it.”
What’s next at Town Center
Simon is proceeding as mall developers do — talking with retailers, keeping its options open, scouting for the best opportunities. There’s no time frame.
Schneider said the St. Johns Town Center can accommodate more development, whether it’s a department store or a full-service hotel or another opportunity. He said two building pads are on the site, on the southeast side.
Schneider said Simon continues to work with Neiman Marcus across the country, but don’t read that as saying one might come to Jacksonville.
Asked if there’s a chance for Macy’s at the Town Center, Schneider said “you never rule out anything.”
Schneider said when the center was under development, Macy’s wasn’t expanding a lot. “Had they been able to make that decision a little later in their corporate lives, there would be a Macy’s there,” he said.
“They have brought the topic up; we have brought the topic up. There certainly is a possibility,” he said.
St. Johns Town Center’s next moves can be traced back to the early days when Boney and Carter were hovering in the helicopter.
Schneider said the helicopter flew the prospects over all of Northeast Florida, including the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in St. Johns County. “I always wanted to drop a golf ball on the 17th green, and I never took advantage of that,” he said.
Instead, they took advantage of making deals.
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