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Deborah Butler on relevant redevelopment

For my family, retail was the “promised land.” Leaving the farm in 1939 was the dream, and my father started this all by selling produce at a roadside stand here in Gainesville, Florida. This developed into a supermarket, and thanks to Dad’s forward-thinking ideas of curbside service and being open seven days a week, that supermarket grew and underwent several redevelopment phases lead by him, us together, and now me with my own team. Remaining relevant is something we eat, drink, and breathe. It has to stay at the forefront of thought. You can never fall asleep and you have to stay on your guard every day. Your business, your retailers, and your community depend on it. 

Succeeding at this requires a well-balanced combination of past research and forward-thinking vision. A consistent mantra in my office is “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” This strategy only works when synchronized with purposeful progressive thought—something that is in my DNA and that I learned working with my Dad in this business since 1980. 

Fortunately, due to our 80-year tenure in the community, we’ve had the opportunity to run our company by taking the long view, building value and trust over time, profiting from both the projects themselves and the goodwill we create connecting with our community. This was especially important when we tackled our first big expansion after completing a 15-year entitlement process. We had by then grown to a roster of successful stores along a one-mile stretch of Gainesville’s busiest I-75 exchange. We had steadily accumulated land adjacent to our property, but its current residential use was no longer relevant. In 2014 we finally broke ground on 750,000 sq. ft. of proposed retail. With that secured, our master plan called for two different developments built in quick succession. The first was Butler North.

The key to this redevelopment was a company-funded, four-lane multi-model connector to our original Butler Plaza, enhancing the entire property’s 360-degree access and paving the way for a north-south throughway adjacent to I-75. Existing tenants like Walmart, Lowes, Olive Garden, and Fridays all expressed interest in updating and expanding. By relocating them to the North project we would gain back the valuable land we needed for phase two. We relocated 14 business in just two years, and all of them experienced increased sales. This drew other new-to-market retailers and Butler North was built and 90% leased in only two years. It was then time to add something our community desperately needed—a mixed-use lifestyle development that would come to be called Butler Town Center. 

First, you have to do your homework. I brought my own experiences to the table, from my studies at Thunderbird International Business School to living abroad in Italy. I knew our center had to be walkable, inviting, more of an experience. But these couldn’t be just trendy buzz words; they had to be executed in a way that would be relevant to our community. I believe in hiring top experts, and I seek out the best. But, “the best” in one city may be the best another. This is critical. You must never be afraid to say no, or even start over. I went pretty far down a path for Town Center that in one moment became clear wasn’t going to work for our market or our property. Never be afraid to go with your gut. It would have cost me much more in the long run had I not thrown it all out and started over. 

I sought experts like Robert Gibbs, President of Gibbs Planning Group. Together we walked top centers in the country and he introduced me to other visionary developers like Yaromir Steiner who became a mentor. Since “the devil’s in the details,” we talked about how every moment matters the second you enter a property—from architecture and lighting that grabs you and brings you in, to convenient infrastructure and accessibility that makes it work.  I also loved the gathering places that anchored the centers in Italy, but we had to Americanize it. Give it a Steve Wynn meets Disney approach. To do this, I worked with a thought leader in landscape architecture, Steve Ryzdon of SWA Group-California, for an innovative, and technologically advanced water feature that will draw, excite, and entertain a crowd. Give it pizazz. Around which is live entertainment and events, or just room for children to run. Every market segment has to be considered when designing for relevance. 

In total, we’ve relocated nearly 400,000 sq. ft, added new-to-market businesses that doubled our property to 2.1 million sq. ft., and created three connected, market-dominant, highly assessable shopping destinations that continue to evolve every day and will, we hope, remain relevant for another 80 years. 

Deborah Butler is president of Butler Enterprises, based in Gainesville, Fla.

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