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GEORGETOWN, TX-With two anchor stores now open, the 100-acre Wolf Ranch already is dispelling most concerns about the impact of 670,000 sf of interstate-fronting retail on the historic city’s downtown shops. The $98-million development’s grand opening will be held in early November.

“We have seen no drop-off in traffic,” Mark Thomas, Georgetown’s economic director, tells GSR. “Retailers are telling me that they’ve seen an increase in traffic. No doubt there was concern, but the early return is the concerns were unfounded.”

From the onset of the Wolf Ranch project, the Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group Inc. has gone the distance to preserve the downtown’s vibrant retail corridor and allay concerns of business owners and elected officials. The retail giant has provided leasing assistance, tenant leads for the downtown association, seasoned pros for brainstorming sessions and free office space for the association and tourism council in a Wolf Ranch storefront. The entire package has been topped off with space on signs inside the retail village and a prominent “Visit Historic Georgetown” medallion on the largest of the highway-fronting buildings. The developer also has been repeat sponsor for city events before and after ground broke in December 2003 plus handed off 20 acres on the bank of the San Gabriel River for a hike and bike trail.

Stephen Shea, director of development for Simon’s community lifestyle division, sees all the good-neighbor measures as just part of doing business. “We started early on in our presentations to city council,” he says. “The reality is these projects are not competitive whatever with the downtown-type environment.”

Simon’s efforts are a testament to the peaceful co-existence of an eclectic mix of downtown blocks filled with restaurants and artists shops and an Interstate 35-fronting “retail village” laid out in neighborhoods with national chains and boxes of all sizes. Thomas says Wolf Ranch and the proposed 145-acre Wolf Lakes, which is now on the drawing board, is the kind of traffic-stopper that the city needed to keep travelers from rolling on down the highway to Round Rock or Austin for pit stops and shopping sprees. “My belief is if we can get them stopped at the interstate, then maybe we can get them downtown,” he says. “We can give them two shopping experiences.”

Thomas says Georgetown’s downtown shop owners were concerned about the Wolf Ranch opening because it’s coming just as the courthouse has closed down for a two-year renovation. But so far, the five-by-eight-block of downtown retail remains filled to capacity. Demand is such that the local owner of the mainstay hardware store started reeling in offers as soon as word got out that he’s considering retirement, according to Thomas.

As the Wolf Ranch plan advanced and Wolf Lakes took shape, other developers took notice of a city that’s strongly favored by retiring Baby Boomers. Whether it’s brownstones or one-of-a-kind shops, both downtown and San Gabriel’s riverbanks are on development dockets. Thomas says the plethora of plans is the fruition of the city’s long-range planning and thanks to its newest resident, Simon.

“We’re out of the business of stamping out strip centers,” Shea says. “We’re being rewarded for creating special projects. This is a special project.” Special attention was paid to preserving the acres of live oaks and large boulders and marrying them to retail-lined nooks in the 100-acre development at the interstate’s junction with Texas 29.Wind Plaza, taking its name from the wind blowing from the river, features a 14-foot, kinetic sculpture by John Mishler of Indiana. Water Plaza boasts a rotary fountain with cascading water and rock quarried from the site. Shade Plaza, the 5,000-sf converging point of all walkways, has a stand of live oak trees, boulders, outdoor fireplace and handcrafted rocking chairs and benches along with piped-in music. The wholly owned Simon development is 100% Wi-Fi wired.

Simon’s “neighborhoods” contain 470,775 sf of anchor space and 198,018 sf of shop space. Wolf Ranch has landed 12 national anchors ranging from an 11,000-sf Pier 1 Imports to a 123,886-sf Target, with the capacity to upsize by another 49,897 sf. The 16,482-sf Office Depot opened June 3 and the 27,584-sf Linen ‘n Things opened June 10. July brings the opening of a 21,475-sf Michaels, 14,880-sf Old Navy, 19,368-sf PetsMart, 30,300-sf TJ Maxx and the trendsetting “Red”Target. In the fall, doors open on an 88,300-sf Kohls, 28,876-sf Best Buy and 20,793-sf DSW Shoe Warehouse.

Les Morris, Simon’s corporate spokesman, says the decision for the soft openings was retailer-driven. It’s a priority to be open for Texas’ tax-free weekend, a back-to-school shopping event second in sales only to Christmas.

Shea says the retail mix of the 145-acre sister development, being done in a joint venture with the Wolf family, will set it apart from Wolf Ranch. To date, the team’s signed the Dallas-based Cinemark Inc. to a 10-screen, 30,000-sf theater. But plays are being lobbed for a grocer, traditional department stores, home improvement and sporting goods retailer. Preliminary consideration is being given to residential and office components. It’s too early to discuss the size or when ground will break on Wolf Lakes, Shea says. What is certain is “it will be the same thought,” he adds. “We’ll try to make something that works with the land.”

Charles Hodges & Associates of Dallas was the architect of record for Wolf Ranch and is doing the preliminary design of Wolf Lakes. The Austin-based TBG Partners crafted the community center’s landscape plan. Vratsinas Construction Co. of Little Rock, AR is the general contractor.

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