A coveted retail shell on the ground floor of Sarasota’s Palm Avenue garage is set to be sold for $1.6 million to a local investor who hopes to bring upscale boutique shops downtown.
Jesse Biter, a local 35-year-old millionaire, was the highest bidder for the 11,000 square feet of prime real estate, which despite enthusiasm from local developers and downtown merchants has sat vacant for about a year.
Biter’s company, Sarasota-based Biter Enterprises LLC, is set to enter into a contract for the property today pending approval from the City Commission.
“What I would like to see here on Palm is kind of like what I’ve seen in other parts of the world,” Biter said. “High-end retail and some high-end restaurants that have a proven track record like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada.”
Biter said he does not yet have tenants lined up for the space, which past and current city commissioners had billed as a pedestrian-friendly retail strip on the first floor of the $13 million garage.
To draw the sort of commerce needed to sustain the shops on Palm Avenue, where businesses have struggled amid the lingering economic downturn, Biter said he will be seeking “an anchor tenant,” likely an upscale restaurant.
Biter also hopes to bring more nightlife to one of downtown’s quieter streets.
“You could finish your dinner at 9 p.m. and you can shop for two more hours and walk off your dinner,” he said. “I’m looking for shops that can stay open later. It drives me nuts seeing everything closed down at 5.”
Though the concept of pedestrian shops with outside dining has stirred excitement since before the garage was completed last year, city officials have been slow to put the space to use as the down market coupled with shaky rental rates made the empty space a tough sell for investors.
Earlier this year, the city solicited bids for the property with a $2.5 million price tag — the appraised value of the property.
The city received no bids for the property at that price despite the allure of a sizable chunk of retail space near a major parking hub.
Commissioners voted to abandon the price floor the second time around, resulting in four bids. In addition to Biter’s $1.6 million bid, the other bids ranged from about $1 million to $1.3 million.
City officials have attached strict guidelines to deter a speculator from purchasing the space and — much like what happened with the oft-extended Pineapple Square deal — sitting on the property for years.
The purchaser must also find tenants consistent with the city’s goal of bringing small retail shops and a restaurant, said Mary Tucker, Sarasota’s purchasing manager.
“That’s what type of businesses he has to put in there,” she said. “What he does have to put there is pedestrian.”
According to the tentative contract, Biter will have 90 days to conduct due diligence tests on the property before he is locked into the deal. If he closes on the property, Biter must fill 50 percent of the space or risk the city taking the property back.
“If he doesn’t fulfill that, then yes, we can get it back,” Tucker said.
John Harshman, a downtown commercial real estate broker familiar with the property, said he was surprised the city did not know more specifics about Biter’s plans for the property.
“I do know that the city was very specific as to what they wanted to see in there,” Harshman said. “I can’t imagine they would sell the property without knowing what the user is going to use it for.”
Eager to attract new businesses and sell the property wholesale rather than piecemeal, the city balked at $2.2 million offer made by a bloc of downtown merchants last year.
That group, headed by Eileen Hampshire, owner of Art to Walk On on South Palm Avenue, had hoped to split and purchase the property in a half-dozen pieces.
“They turned down $2.2 million from us,” Hampshire said. “What do you think about that? Now, they’re going to sell it for less.”
Though shops have shuttered on Palm Avenue, Biter said he is confident businesses can flourish beneath the garage as commuter become more familiar with the cheaper downtown parking.
“The biggest factor is the city’s willingness to make that area work,” he said. “And I think they definitely want to see Palm Avenue thrive.”
City commissioners are scheduled to review the tentative contract with Biter today at City Hall.