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Plaza shopping center sees revival

September 12, 2008 : Mitzi Bible

There’s a revival happening at the 50-year-old Plaza shopping center in mid-town Lynchburg, and Liberty University — the world’s largest evangelical university — is spreading the good news.

Since Liberty became the owners late last year (after receiving the $11.7 million gift from a Scottsdale, Ariz., real estate development firm), the institution has spent more than $500,000 in repairs and enhancements. The university aims to attract new tenants and bring the Plaza back to its former glory.

“[In the '60s] this center was called the Pittman Plaza and it was the hub back in its heyday, back before there was a mall,” said Alan Askew, Liberty University’s project manager. “That’s the goal, to get that back.”

On the 42-acre property is 467,000 square feet of building space, with the shopping center and all its outparcels — a movie theater, a McDonald’s and a 73,000-square-foot building that formerly housed a Roses department store.

Improvements over the past year have included replacing all the roofs, reworking the heating and cooling systems, bringing sprinkler systems up to code, and more cosmetic projects, such as replanting flowerbeds, repainting, getting rid of old signage and general cleanup.

“So far the response from tenants has been good because they’ve seen the work we’ve done … it’s been a while since any major improvements like that have been done,” Askew said.

The university recently announced that two new tenants have signed on. A Super Dollar Discount Foods will offer groceries, pharmacy services and a gas station, and Centra Health will operate the Lynchburg Family Medicine Residency Program, a treatment center and training space for new doctors.

Chris Doyle, the commercial real estate broker handling the project for Liberty, said the idea is to have both retail space and office space.

“The thought was if you could take the upper level that adjoins the [Lynchburg Public] Library and McDonald’s, which also enjoys a large, central parking area, and turn that into a good, basic retail shopping center and then take the other lower half and lease that to various office and institutional-type users, you would have a balance to the project that would allow both levels to feed off each other,” he said.

Askew said this type of real estate venture is a first for Liberty, but the school took on the challenge because “it was a great opportunity for us to build either an endowment or annuity.”

There has been talk of Liberty itself using the space, but Askew says the present goal is “to build it up with tenants, not necessarily LU space, but to bring the profit back up to where it needs to be on appraisal.”

Liberty’s School of Aeronautics is temporarily housing mechanics labs in a portion of the old Roses department store while fundraising is under way for a permanent facility at the airport.

Askew said above all, the Plaza project shows Liberty’s efforts to strengthen community ties as it aids its home city in urban renewal.

“Everybody has an interest and it benefits everybody if that gets revitalized, not just Liberty,” he said.

Next week, project leaders will meet with the city’s planning committee and present a new site plan for traffic flow at the Plaza, which includes making it safer and more well-organized for pedestrians, and a new sign package and possibly a name change.