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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real EstateFlorida.)

PUNTA GORDA, FL-The Wilder Companies has received approval from Charlotte County officials for its planned $475-million mixed-use development here. The two-million-sf project, now renamed the Great Loop-Southwest Florida, this week received approval from county commissioners as a development of regional impact (DRI).

Tom Wilder, a principal of the Boston-based company, tells GlobeSt.com that the project, while getting a warm reception from city and county residents, took some time to work through the process because of its size. The 200-acre site on Jones Loop Road is convenient to both Interstate 75 and US 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail, and will likely attract more traffic to the area as the project is developed over the next five years.

“The biggest issue that the county has are transportation issues,” Wilder says. Those matters will be resolved through the formation of a community development district, and Wilder has agreed to contribute a proportionate share of the costs to improve roadways leading to the project, he says.

Construction remains on track to start early next year on the Great Loop, which will include 1.2 million sf of retail, plus 100,000 sf of offices, 200 hotel rooms and 500 residences. The $250-million retail component is scheduled to open in early 2010.

Wilder, which is also developing the 400,000-sf Loop West retail complex in Kissimmee, promises to bring Punta Gorda new shopping, dining, living, working and entertainment options that local residents must now drive to nearby Fort Myers and Sarasota to experience. The company describes its site as “the last great untapped market” along Florida’s Gulf Coast, adding that the Great Loop’s trade area will encompass Charlotte County and neighboring parts of Lee and Sarasota counties.

“We are so pleased to be entering this community and introducing this concept,” Wilder says. “There has been a huge void in this community.”

While Wilder has been building brand familiarity with its Loop concept in Florida, as well as its home state of Massachusetts, the Punta Gorda project will exceed anything it has done thus far, says Andy LaGrega, another Wilder principal. “The Great Loop goes beyond what came before in size, design, experience and trade area draw. We wanted the name to better reflect that,” he says.

Wilder, which has largely been involved in the retail sector over the last 35 years, also has experience in urban street-level retail, mixed-use projects and regional malls. Its current portfolio includes 45 properties nationwide with another four million sf under development, including the 350,000-sf Rialto luxury mixed-use development in Orlando.

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