ENGLEWOOD — If you ask Bob Wright and D. Scott Libertore, they’ll tell you the Lemon Bay High School graduating class of 1986 was the best.
“The cool part is we’re coming back to Englewood,” Libertore said.
Libertore and Wright grew up in Englewood, remained friends for more than 30 years and now are business partners who want to restore the economic vitality to the Lemon Bay Plaza shopping center in north Englewood.
“I always felt it would be an awesome center to be a part of,” Wright said.
They recently purchased the center for $2.3 million at an auction. The only businesses in the center now are a Big Lots, Norma Jean’s Sports Grille, Yum Yum’s Bakery, Italiano’s pizza and a UPS franchise.
It hasn’t always been that way. Back in the 1980s, the Lemon Bay Plaza was economically vibrant with a Publix, Englewood’s only Kmart, a Walgreens and various merchants. Kmart moved to Merchant’s Crossing around 1990 — it closed long ago and Bealls has taken its place — and Publix moved out when its Olde Englewood Village location opened in the late 1990s. Without those anchor stores, business at the plaza has slowed.
But where others see a dying business, Wright and Libertore see the potential.
Wright has a 20-year-career with UPS and is working with its franchise development division. His parents originally owned Howards restaurant, back when it was on the water.
The former owners of Lemon Bay Plaza wanted to sell the property and were reluctant to offer a long-term leases to the UPS store and other tenants, Wright said. That seemed odd to him, especially in a center that had so few tenants.
“(Libertore) has been ultra-successful and wanted to diversify some of his assets, and with me having experience in the retail side of commercial real estate, I presented it to him,” Wright said.
The two toured the center and liked what they saw and the future possibilities for it.
“We made an offer and it was accepted,” Wright said.
Their goal is to renovate the center, its appearance, making it “more appealing,” and find new tenants.
“We’re going to make a nice center here,” Liberatore said. “To come back and do a project with (Wright) and make a difference in the community with what they need, is awesome, cool to me.”
He queried customers of the center, asking what they would like to see, and the answer was a Publix, Detwiler’s Farm Market or some other grocery chain — maybe Lucky’s or Aldi, which have recently moved into North Port and Port Charlotte, or Trader Joe’s, which has no stores between Sarasota and Fort Myers. Customers also said they’d like to see a liquor store, medical offices and local businesses settling into the center.
“All this area is going to grow,” Wright said, citing the demographics in the near future with anticipated growth from West Villages, the growth being seen in the Boca Royale Golf & Country Club community and elsewhere.
Italiano’s manager Chris Crenshaw welcomed Liberatore and Wright and the enthusiasm they have to repopulate the Lemon Bay center with new businesses.
“They actually care about the plaza,” Crenshaw said.
Kevin Harrington and his wife, Cecile, have owned and operated Yum Yum’s Bakery at the Lemon Bay center for more than a decade. He’s also a manager of shopping centers in the area.
“I think it’s great that local boys have come back to town and are going to try to redevelop something here — that’s excellent,” Harrington said. He would like to see an optometrist or a dentist to be among the new tenants repopulating Lemon Bay center.
“I think it’s pretty promising,” he said. “If they stay moving forward, this place is ready to go.”
Anyone interested in the Lemon Bay center’s future, can email Wright at LemonBayLeasing@gmail.com.