Mall helped solidify Short Pump’s status

Courtesy Forest City Enterprises
On a blustery November day 11 years ago, amid the flurry of confetti and polite applause, Short Pump officially arrived.

Sure, the nebulous region had existed for decades already – first as a rural outpost where farmland was plentiful and people were not, later as the butt of jokes from outsiders who couldn't quite figure the meaning behind its name, and eventually as the Henrico definition of suburban sprawl, when planned communities spread as far west as the county's borders would allow.

In its early modern years, Short Pump was perhaps best known as the place from which a plethora of historic structures were uprooted and trucked across the county line into Goochland, reassembled there as a Field Days of the Past exhibit. And no, an airplane didn't crash into an auto repair shop on West Broad Street years ago, though natives will recall the distinct tailpiece of a single-engine plane that seemed to indicate otherwise as it adorned the side of an auto repair shop on West Broad Street for years.

Short Pump was very much a "place" before Nov. 28, 2000, but on that day, as officials gathered beneath a tent amid wooded acres for a ceremonial groundbreaking, it was about to emerge from the shadows – officially.

'Something special'
Most of the 147 acres on which Short Pump's calling card sits today has been part of Tommy Pruitt's family for nearly a century. He grew up in a house still inhabited by his parents that sits on the south side of West Broad Street, directly across from the mall.

"We're back there every Sunday afternoon for Sunday dinner," he says, "the whole clan."

Pruitt says he wasn't quite sure what ultimately would take shape on the family's prime land – but he knew it would be meaningful.

"We always wanted to have something special there," he says. "We didn't know what 'special' was, but we knew we wanted something special."

In the mid-1990s, his company, Pruitt Associates, sought the assistance of a nationally prominent developer to help dream up 'special.' Following a nationwide search, he selected Forest City Enterprises of Ohio, and the two entities started a process that would span several years and dozens of blueprints.

The time was right, they decided, to introduce a new retail concept to Short Pump – and Central Virginia. Thus was born the concept of Short Pump Town Center, soon to become a unique two-story, open-air shopping mall in the heart of perhaps the last place anyone would have envisioned it just a few decades earlier.

An upscale, outdoor shopping mall? In Short Pump? Really?

Naysayers are quiet today, more than seven years after the mall opened in September 2003, bringing with it high-end retailer Nordstrom and a plethora of other retailers.

For Henrico County and Central Virginia, the $360-million project was the retail equivalent of a Triple A city landing a major league baseball team. It helped elevate the way retailers and other businesses viewed the market and announced that Short Pump was a major retail player, and for that, the construction of Short Pump Town Center earned the No. 22 spot in the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant events in Henrico history.

A learning curve
The original plans for the mall called for a one-story, indoor facility. . . or a two-story outdoor facility with vehicular access throughout. . . or perhaps something else entirely.

"I probably have 100 different layouts in my office somewhere," Pruitt says, recalling the early iterations that seemed to change by the day. "We went through quite a few gyrations."

Construction of the mall also proved a learning process for Henrico County.

To fund infrastructure requirements necessary for its construction, county officials agreed to establish a community development authority (CDA) for the specific purpose of issuing $25.5 million in special assessment revenue bonds that would finance infrastructure projects at the mall site, such as entrance roads, stormwater management and traffic signals.

It was the first time Henrico had used a CDA, and the idea quickly was met with legal resistance by several Henrico residents – who claimed the decision was nothing more than a veiled way of giving taxpayer dollars to individual developers – and Taubman Centers, Inc., the owner of rival Regency Square, which claimed the idea was unfair and would hurt its Henrico property – for which it had unsuccessfully sought incentives of its own from the county.

The lawsuits eventually reached the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the county and the CDA, clearing the way for the bond issue. But the process delayed construction by more than a year and allowed Taubman to speed work on its own new upscale mall, Stony Point Fashion Park in Richmond. The two malls opened within days of each other in September 2003.

"If you know you're right on the issues, you've got to move forward. We felt we were on the right side of the issue," Pruitt says.

The mall opened with nearly 100 stores and restaurants and now counts 137 tenants on its list. How has it succeeded even during some lean economic years? Pruitt credits its location – surrounded by high-end residential neighborhoods, two interstates (64 and 295), a connector to Chesterfield (Route 288) and Henrico's main thoroughfare, West Broad Street – as the primary reason. Diversity of tenants and widespread appeal have helped, too.

"They really set that mall apart," he says.

Financial payoff
Financially, the decision to build the mall paid off for Pruitt, Forest City and the county. As a condition of the CDA, Henrico officials had required that the entire associated debt service of $31.1 million be paid off within five and a half years.

"That was a tough pill," Pruitt says. But by late 2009, the amount had been paid entirely from the tax revenues generated at the mall, and the CDA was dissolved. Henrico received an additional $4 million in tax revenue during that period and more than $8 million in incremental revenue during its 2010 fiscal year.

"The Short Pump Town Center CDA is a great success story," Finance Director John A. Vithoulkas said at the time. "We reached full payoff in five years with the unanticipated benefit of significant revenue over and above the debt payments."

Pruitt credits the county with its willingness to lend support to the project.

"When they became convinced that we could produce, that's when they really became great team members," he says. "I don’t think we could have envisioned [the mall] turning out better. It's been very, very popular, and we continue to build the tenant list every year."

"But even now, we're still trying to tweak that mall," he says, citing the recent addition of the Hotel Sierra on mall property as an out-of-the-box idea that has worked. More creative plans, he says, are on the way.

Short Pump pride
In the years since the town center opened, another massive development – West Broad Village – has sprouted in Short Pump, and several strip malls have developed along the outskirts of the mall. The mall regularly attracts shoppers from as far as Charlottesville and beyond.

But Pruitt downplays the significance of the mall in solidifying Short Pump's place on the local and regional map.

"I'd love to take credit," he says, "but that was a dynamic area. We're there because of the residential growth that had already occurred.

"I think Short Pump would have developed very well without the mall – a lot of it already had."

Perhaps. But like much of Henrico County, Short Pump was – and is – at times a mystery. Where does it begin? Where does it end? The mall also gave Short Pump something that was certainly – and boldy – its own. And it helped transform its name from comic fodder to corporate envy.

"I've had a lot of business associates come to me over the years, and they asked me to help change the name of Short Pump," Pruitt says. "I would politely listen, but respectfully decline. We were very proud of the name Short Pump."

"I've been in meetings in other parts of the country with tenants and clients now," he says, "and they all know the name Short Pump."
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