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Tommy Pruitt (left) and Virgil Hazelett at Short Pump Town Center. Photo by Jay Paul
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More than a decade later, it's hard to say why the thick folios of filings, depositions and counter-filings — a near-mountain of legal work resulting from the lawsuit that once threatened the Richmond area's most valuable retail development — still occupy prime real estate on the credenza behind Tommy Pruitt's desk. Maybe they're there as a talisman, or a trophy — but they're certainly a reminder, says Pruitt, owner of Pruitt Companies and the visionary behind Short Pump Town Center. "I don't know why I keep it there," says Pruitt, looking at the pile that once consumed his every thought. "We went through a lot. But boy, it was worth it."
Short Pump Town Center has proven fruitful not only for Pruitt and his partners, Forest City Enterprises Inc. of Cleveland, but also for Henrico County, for its taxpayers — and for shoppers from the region, from around the state and beyond.
It was 1997 when Pruitt and his partners first approached Henrico officials, says then-County Manager Virgil Hazelett. And in its initial conception, the mall proposal held little appeal. The Short Pump area, once a sleepy stagecoach stop with a name derived from a poorly engineered well pump handle, already was on its way toward a boom. Retail anchors like Walmart, Pleasants Hardware and Target had arrived, or had plans to do so. Why would the county want to contribute $30 million dollars in subsidies to build roads and infrastructure around the proposed mall — the amount Pruitt and his partners initially asked for — to do what the commercial market likely would do on its own in due time?
But there was something different when the developer returned with a new proposal about a year later, Hazelett says, and it was time to talk seriously.
"They had amassed so much land in that area — they were ready to move forward," he says, and the proposal for a massive, upscale outdoor mall anchored by what amounted to a county park in its center was of a grand scale that promised to be something far more than a mere retail development. "At that point, you began to see the magnitude of how it could affect the Short Pump corridor, which, of course, it's done." Hazelett grew enthusiastic as the proposal evolved. Henrico officials came up with complex, but sweet deal for the Short Pump project. Henrico's Board of Supervisors voted to create a special community development authority and authorized it to issue $22 million in bonds for the mall's parking lot, internal road system and linear park, complete with statues to famous Virginians, fountains and landscaped seating areas anchored with stores.
Across the county line in the city, Richmond City Council decided to give a $33 million cash incentive to Taubman Centers Inc., a national mall development giant, to build its proposed Stony Point Fashion Park. In addition to its own new mall construction plans, the Michigan-based mall builder had purchased Regency Square Mall, long the region's premier high-end mall located in Henrico County. After being rebuffed by Henrico officials in its request for financial assistance to redevelop the aging but profitable mall, Taubman approached Richmond officials about constructing its own premium mall and, after plans for Short Pump were announced, a lawsuit bubbled up.
In Henrico's effort to insulate taxpayers and to ensure return on investment — the bonds were paid off using real estate, sales, business personal property and license taxes from the mall and its tenants — county officials made themselves, Pruitt and his partners vulnerable to attack. Taubman's lawyers recruited three Henrico taxpayers to file suit against Henrico, its community development authority and Pruitt's partners. The wrangling proved costly and time consuming for Short Pump's development efforts, Pruitt says.
The use of an authority to finance infrastructure to support economic development of this kind was unusual, and Short Pump took its lumps in the media, with Taubman lawyers painting the case as use of public funds for a private venture. Pruitt and his partners persevered and eventually beat the lawsuit, paving the way to move forward in spite of a delay of about a year.
When Short Pump opened Sept. 4, 2003 — just weeks before rival Stony Point — with 140 stores on two levels, anchored by national retail chains like Nordstrom, Apple and Crate & Barrel that had never paid mind to the Richmond region before, everything changed. That single day added more than 1.1 million square feet — worth about $215 million in assessed value — of new retail space to the region.
"It has made all the difference," says Hazelett, calling the project the crowning retail project of his two-plus decade career as Henrico's top administrator. "It is in essence the reactor of that area and a magnet for retail sales in the Richmond metro area. I'm sure the development would have taken place, but as to the size or what it would have been, I couldn't say. But I can look back and say that town center has had a dramatic impact on that corridor and the county. Looking back, it's hard to conceive of something else."
At the time, among analysts and even some taxpayers, the biggest concern about the mall's construction was what negative effect it might have on other retail in the region. To be certain, it did cause a rush of retailers to pack up and head west to Short Pump. But rather than simply representing a migration — moving retail spending from one location to another and leaving blight in its wake — Short Pump did something else. Its upscale offerings competed with other major regional retail destinations in the Washington, D.C., area. "It was always a concern," Hazelett says, acknowledging the possibility it might draw too much away from existing retail, but "from the customer-base standpoint, from the retail sales, that mall did and still does attract people from far and wide."
County planners, rather than predicting a negative or flat impact on retail sales, had anticipated an increase of between $6 and $8 million a year in retail sales, real estate and other tax revenues as a result of the new mall in spite of its likely drain on other county retail centers like the Taubman-owned Regency Mall. Although Short Pump did attract a number of Regency tenants, the overall prediction proved correct, according to current Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas. "I think they'd predicted $6 million, and it ended up being right about $8 million."
Pruitt says the gamble made perfect sense for himself and his partners. "It couldn't have been any stronger area to be in than Short Pump," he says. "If you looked at what had happened in the previous eight years in terms of rooftops, you couldn't have put your mall in a better location."
That location, of course, was at an intersection of interstates 64 and 295, State Route 288 and West Broad Street itself.
"It was kind of the perfect storm in that area," says Tom Little, real estate division director for Henrico County.
And the cars came. On the first day, license plates from at least seven states helped fill the parking lot. "You can still walk through that parking lot today, and you'll see license plates from all over [the country]," Hazelett says. "It is a destination."
Very much so, says Anna Handres, manager at Blythe Exquisite Linens and Lingerie. The store opened in the Shoppes at Westgate just a few years after Short Pump opened. "We honestly get [customers] from all over the state all the time," Handres says. "We get plenty of people who come in from North Carolina. We get people from the Fredericksburg area and I definitely hear them say that... they come this way rather than go that way [to Washington] because it's easier to navigate."
Henrico Deputy County Manager Randy Silber, who was in the county's planning office when Short Pump was in development, says upscale strip malls like Westgate —where Blythe is — and high-quality, transformative mixed-use developments like West Broad Village would simply never have happened the way they did without the mall as a catalyst and an inspiration. "The market value began to reach that point and encourage other kinds of development," Silber says.
And Short Pump Town Center clearly primed the pump for much of what came later, he says. Between 1997 and 2001, the Short Pump area already was up and coming, with about 2 million square feet of retail added during that period. The mall's construction was followed by a lull in development. Then between 2008 and 2011, the mall's magnetic draw helped add almost another 1.5 million square feet — another $247 million in assessed real estate value — to the area directly adjacent to the mall.
For Pruitt, the mall's developer, making certain that quality development occurred in Short Pump had a very personal meaning. The property he'd amassed to build the mall started as parcels that had been in his family for generations. "I was raised right across the street," he says. In fact, his elderly parents are "still across the street, within a 7-iron of the mall site." And while that means traffic, that traffic was coming one way or another, he says, "but now it's also the retail hub of this entire region."