(Carl Cronan is editor of RealEstateFlorida.)

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PANAMA CITY BEACH, FL-Simon Property Group Inc. has opened its900,000-sf Pier Park open-air retail center, directly across thestreet from the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. It's believed to be thecompany's first large-scale retail development with direct accessto a beach.

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Paul Ajdaharian, Simon's vice president of community/lifestylecenters, says the company's other malls in resort areas are a bitfarther from the beach, while Pier Park is only a short walk away.The center, which is also easily accessible from US 98, is intendedto be a year-round shopping destination for both locals andtourists.

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"The response we're getting from the community has been positivefrom day one," Ajdaharian tells GlobeSt.com. "We've been happy withboth the leaseup and occupancy of the project."

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Pier Park has space for nearly 100 retailers, with approximatelyhalf being new to Panama City Beach and Northwest Florida. Anchorsinclude Dillard's, Target, JCPenney, Borders, Old Navy and Ron JonSurf Shop, while other attractions include the Grand 16 Theatresand Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurant. Simon officialswould not disclose the center's opening occupancy rate.

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Because of the uniqueness of this project, Simon is lessconcerned about the current state of the economy leading tothousands of retailer closings and bankruptcies nationwide. TheInternational Council of Shopping Centers is predicting nearly5,800 store closings this year, 26% more than in 2007.

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"Quality sells," Ajdaharian says with a confident tone. "If youput together a compelling project that invites people to gather andexcites them, it will perform."

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Indianapolis, IN-based Simon currently owns or has an interestin 381 properties totaling 260 million sf of gross leasable area inNorth America, Europe and Asia. Its retail platforms includeregional malls, outlets and community/lifestyle centers.

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