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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real EstateFlorida.)

PANAMA CITY BEACH, FL-Simon Property Group Inc. has opened its 900,000-sf Pier Park open-air retail center, directly across the street from the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. It’s believed to be the company’s first large-scale retail development with direct access to a beach.

Paul Ajdaharian, Simon’s vice president of community/lifestyle centers, says the company’s other malls in resort areas are a bit farther from the beach, while Pier Park is only a short walk away. The center, which is also easily accessible from US 98, is intended to be a year-round shopping destination for both locals and tourists.

“The response we’re getting from the community has been positive from day one,” Ajdaharian tells GlobeSt.com. “We’ve been happy with both the leaseup and occupancy of the project.”

Pier Park has space for nearly 100 retailers, with approximately half being new to Panama City Beach and Northwest Florida. Anchors include Dillard’s, Target, JCPenney, Borders, Old Navy and Ron Jon Surf Shop, while other attractions include the Grand 16 Theatres and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant. Simon officials would not disclose the center’s opening occupancy rate.

Because of the uniqueness of this project, Simon is less concerned about the current state of the economy leading to thousands of retailer closings and bankruptcies nationwide. The International Council of Shopping Centers is predicting nearly 5,800 store closings this year, 26% more than in 2007.

“Quality sells,” Ajdaharian says with a confident tone. “If you put together a compelling project that invites people to gather and excites them, it will perform.”

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

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