When Liberty University received the 50-year-old Plaza shopping center in midtown Lynchburg as a donation from an Arizona real estate development firm five years ago, administrators saw a unique opportunity to join city revitalization efforts and stimulate the local economy while building the school’s endowment.
Liberty went straight to work, pouring in more than $500,000 in repairs and enhancements to the 42-acre, 467,000-square-foot property, which includes outparcels — a movie theater, a McDonald’s restaurant, and a building that formerly housed the old Roses department store. At the time, only 50 percent of the space had been leased.
Now, the center is booming with business, with occupancy at 90 percent.
With a mix of tenants that range from a grocery store to clothing stores, nail salons and tax and health care services, The Plaza is drawing people back to midtown — an idea the city made a priority in its own restoration efforts, which recently included the groundbreaking of the Midtown Connector road project.
Roses is returning as one of The Plaza’s newest tenants, this time as a “Roses Express,” a junior department store, scheduled to open this fall.
Real estate agent Chris Doyle said he expects the remaining storefronts, mostly on the upper level of the center, to be filled within the next year. He said he is hoping to attract some restaurants, perhaps a coffee shop or a sandwich shop, to provide more dining options to the more than 8,000 people who work within a mile of the site and 10,000 who make their homes within a mile as well.
New, larger, digital signs, if approved, will draw even more people to the property.
Scottie Napier, manager at Rainbow, a clothing store on the upper level, said she welcomes the progress.
“Since more businesses are coming in, we are seeing things increase here. We are hoping when Roses opens up … that will give us a more diverse clientele. Businesses that depend on word of mouth appreciate having diverse dining options and varied businesses to help increase foot traffic.”
Dakota Braxton, 20, is a frequent shopper at the center.
“Since the new stores came in, this is actually the most crowded I have seen it here since I can remember,” he said. “They are moving on up.”
While Liberty has been returning the center to its former glory, the ripple effect can be seen in nearby businesses, Doyle said.
“Once Liberty added life and vibrancy, and has been getting people to shop in this area, all those buildings along the front road (Memorial Avenue) wound up being leased or sold because people are saying, ‘We’ve got a good partner in this community that’s going to make this project work in the long haul.’”
The project is a “tremendous investment” for Liberty, he added. When the school was able to sell some of the property to an “anchor tenant,” Centra Health, for its Lynchburg Family Medicine Residency Program in 2009, Doyle said all remaining debts that came with the donation (which was valued at $11.7 million in 2007) were paid and now all income generated is feeding the school’s endowment.
It was a wise move, he said, and one that has long-lasting benefits for the region.
“It has taken a while for this activity to get going, with the economy being what it has over the last few years, but now you look around and all the national tenants are staying, new national tenants are coming in and drawing additional people. The good, operating local tenants are staying, providing good services for good values. The foundation is in place with the investments by the big players … and Liberty is continuing to do improvements that make it better. Now we’ll see which new tenants will complement our mix … and for the right ones we will make an attractive deal for the long term.”
Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. said Doyle, a broker with CBRE Group, Inc., the largest real estate brokerage firm in the world, has served Liberty well in the revitalization of the shopping center.
“He overcame what many thought were insurmountable odds in making the declining property viable and successful again. For over a decade, Chris has been passionate about helping Liberty University fulfill its mission through the sale and lease of university-owned retail properties at The Plaza, Candlers Station, Wards Road, and elsewhere.”