By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL — “Just watch and see what happens.”
That’s the best way Stirling Properties Senior Vice President of Development Townsend Underhill thought he could respond to assure Slidell residents about construction beginning on the Fremaux Town Center.
What was formerly known as the Summit Fremaux has been renamed Fremaux Town Center, and Underhill made it clear this week that things will be very different in the future, following an announcement last week that Stirling has officially taken over the project.
“We understand about what happened in the past and why people here were frustrated, but we have nothing to do with what happened in the past,” Underhill said. “All we want to tell people in Slidell is to watch and see what happens.”
Stirling, CBL & Associates, and Slidell businessman Robert Levis are now a three-team partnership in what promises to be the start of the multi-use development Levis envisioned four years ago. Phase I is expected to start in March and is planned as a $100 million project with up to 1,000 jobs.
It was in 2008 that Levis announced a partnership with Bayer Properties out of Birmingham, Ala., that would reportedly lead to a 400-acre development including everything from retail stores, a mall, office space, a college campus, apartments and more.
The project never got off the ground and became a thorn in the side of Slidell officials, who endured years of criticism for the $15 million investment made by Slidell and St. Tammany Parish to build infrastructure and a road on the property.
Last week, however, all that changed as Stirling Properties came onto the scene as the new developers, promising quick action to get the project going. Underhill said “you will see activity on the property no later than March and we expect to open Phase I of the project in the second quarter of 2014.”
Underhill also said that Stirling believes Slidell is ready to support the development with an upswing in retail sales nationally the past year-and-a-half. He added that Stirling would never have gotten involved had the city and parish not supported it with the infrastructure work.
“That was crucial for this deal to work,” he said about the $15 million spent by the city and parish together. “We see this as a strong retail location. We would never have gotten involved at this time if we did not believe that the retail market is strong.”
Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan, who remained perhaps the strongest supporter of the Fremaux Town Center from day one, said this past week that he believes the new leadership is finally going to bring about a vital economic boost for the city.
“I’ve said all along that this will tell the outside business world Slidell is alive and well, and a great place to do business,” he said. “We’re finally going to see it start and I couldn’t be happier.”
Underhill said there will be a number of changes to the entire project, including a new layout that was never part of the original plan.
“Phase I will be an open air retail center, much like River Chase in Covington that we developed,” Underhill explained.
He added that the road built from Old Spanish Trail to Fremaux Avenue will also get a new name.
“Obviously we don’t want to keep the name Summit Boulevard, so we will be changing it soon. We’re still considering some different names,” he said.
The road starts on either side of the 400-acre property, but a bridge is needed in the middle of the road to complete it—a point of contention between Bayer and the city months ago.
“We have already addressed that problem and Slidell is working with DOTD, who has identified some money that will complete the road. One way or another, however, we hope to have that road and bridge finished by the opening next year.”
Phase I will now be 295,000 square feet, including major anchor stores that feature Kohl’s with a 55,000 square foot site and Dick’s Sporting Goods with a 45,000 square foot facility.
Also leased for Phase I include Michael’s, T.J. Maxx, PetSmart, LongHorn Steakhouse, DressBarn, ULTA Beauty, Lane Bryant, Rack Room Shoes, Best Buy and Versona Accessories.
Underhill said Stirling still sees the project to be as big as Levis originally planned from the beginning. Phase II will start as soon as the first phase is finished and begins to show the profitability the developers hope for.
“We have no set timetable for Phase II, but certainly will start it as soon as possible after Phase I,” Underhill said. “But overall, we still believe this project has a great location, as Robert Levis saw from the beginning, and we believe it will one day fulfill the plans he had.”
Underhill confirmed that Jeffrey Bayer “did lose money by stepping aside from the project” and after the recent transfer of ownership, “Mr. Bayer is completely out of this project going forward.”
Underhill said Levis contacted Stirling Properties in March of 2012, seeking a possible change in developer after over three years of delays from the Bayer group.
“From that first meeting, our interest grew,” Underhill said. “We had monitored this project since it was first announced so we were very familiar with it. And now with the improvement in the retail market nationally, we believe Slidell is ready for this.”