Dallas-based Centergy Retail has started construction on a long-delayed retail development at the site of the old Farah plant in El Paso, calling it one of the largest new commercial retail projects in the country.
“El Paso has lacked significant retail development over the years and El Pasoans are starved for it,” says El Paso heavy hitter Paul Foster, the money behind the ambitious project.
It’s been more than four years since Foster, executive chairman of Western Refining, decided to transform the 50-acre site into a high-end retail center called The Fountains at Farah – his first foray into commercial retail development.
The project was delayed by a drawn-out battle over tax incentives, opposition by area retailers and, most recently, the economy.
But now the project is back on track and the developer has upgraded its plans, spurred by an overwhelming interest from retailers looking for new markets like El Paso as the economy continues to sputter.
“I have never had more demand than I have had for this project,” says Centergy Retail president West Miller.
That’s why the center at Interstate 10 and Hawkins, near Cielo Vista Mall, will not be built in phases as originally imagined, Miller says. Instead, it will all open at the same time, in October 2013.
More than 50 percent of the center’s 615,000-square-feet of retail space is pre-leased, according to Miller.
Exactly who those retailers are will be announced in the coming months, he says.
As many as 1,000 people are expected to be employed building the retail center at the peak of the construction. The general contractor is searching for as many as 40 subcontractors, executives say.
While the plans for the design of the retail project have changed, the entitlements obtained from the city and county government remain the same.
Centergy Retail will receive up to $12 million in tax rebates, which it obtained in 2008 and 2009. A protracted fight at the city and county delayed the start of the project as the economy slid into recession.
Simon Properties, which owns Cielo Vista Mall, and De la Vega Group, developer of Las Palmas Market Place, argued the center would simply steal tenants from other El Paso shopping centers and malls, especially damaging as the economy was slipping into recession.
The city and county responded by tying the entitlements to a requirement that The Fountains attract net new tenants to El Paso.
“We’re going to make good on our promise,” Miller says.
Right now, Centergy Retail has agreements with 25 tenants who have never been in El Paso before, according to Miller.
In April, Tennessee-based EMJ Construction was awarded the $70-million contract to build the center and is now searching for subcontractors in El Paso.
To spark local interest, the company laid out its plans to nearly 150 local businesspeople at a sold-out Purchasing Power Lunch hosted by the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.
“When this gets built, and it gets built to the level we are talking about building it – with the amenities and the finishes – you are going to have a destination spot,” says Ray Catlin, EMJ Construction’s executive vice president. Founded in 1968, the company has built over 1,300 shopping centers.
Projects will be put out to bid by the end of this week, according to Catlin.
The Fountains was controversial in the planning stages, but four years and a recession later, many seem awed by the scale of the project. Miller made a big splash Thursday when he showed detailed 3D renderings of the retail project for the first time.
The Fountains is really two shopping centers on two levels. On top would be a fairly typical power center, anchored by big national brands. Below would be what Miller calls the “main street component” or “lifestyle” center.
Flying through the 3D rendering of the lifestyle portion Thursday, Miller pointed out the contemporary design of the buildings, the vertical construction, amphitheater, parks, covered parking, art feature area, chess tables and fire pits.
“This is very close to what you will see in 18 months,” he said.
True to its name, the center will feature an elaborate choreographed fountain, wall fountains and a pop fountain for kids. A mobile application will show shoppers where they parked their car and touch screen directories will offer shoppers daily deals.
“They have taken the power center design to a whole different level with the main street component,” says Mathew McElroy, city development director.
He adds, “I think the design is one that people are going to be proud of.”
Given it’s his first retail venture, has it been a bit of a learning curve for Foster?
“Oh, big time. I have no idea what I am doing,” he says, laughing.
But Foster’s ready to do more.
Miller says, “We are going to keep building in El Paso. Paul Foster owns two corners at Artcraft and Interstate 10 and we are talking to major retailers now about that intersection.”
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.