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A vacant village

Retailers lined up, then pulled out

On 81 acres of former cornfields just off the Collegeville exit of U.S. Route 422, a town is taking shape. Or so it appears.

It's really a shopping center.

But at 750,000 square feet, with stores and restaurants of varying heights arrayed along narrow streets and landscaped plazas to evoke a quaint village, Providence Town Center seems deserving of its own zip code.

Brandon Famous would settle for more occupants.

He is chief executive officer of Fameco Real Estate L.P., the Conshohocken retail broker in charge of leasing at Providence Town.

"Two years ago, the lineup was spectacular," Famous said of the proposed tenants, a variety of national chains.

Then the recession hit, shoppers sliced spending, and retailers pulled back on expansion plans.

"This was going to be a bookstore," Famous said, pointing to a large empty building in the central plaza. "It still may be."

The center is currently 73 percent leased. But the spaces still not spoken for have prompted developer Brandolini Cos. to push off indefinitely a Phase II grand opening. Last month's opening of a Wegmans supermarket, joined by a half-dozen large-scale retailers, was the Phase I debut.

"We're going to open [Phase II] when we think it's appropriate for the tenants ready to go and the consumers ready to spend," said Fred Snow, president of Brandolini.

The 73-year-old company, based in Berwyn, owns 15 shopping centers, most of them in suburban Philadelphia, according to its Web site. Snow said Providence Town had the financial wherewithal to wait for the retail sector's revival.

"Whether it happens in six months or 24 months, we're going to be there," Snow said, defending his company's decision to press on with construction of the $250 million center at such an ugly time for retail. On a recent afternoon, construction crews were putting roofs on unfinished units.

"When the market does recover," he said, "we will have the only site in town where tenants can act quickly and open stores quickly."

Exactly who those tenants are might be somewhat different from what was originally envisioned, with more of a "mix-and-match" of high-end stores and "value-oriented" retailers, Famous said. The white-hot popularity of the traditional "lifestyle center" has cooled somewhat, he said.

"If you could see into the future two years ago, you would have never built this middle section," he said, standing in Providence Town's central plaza, lined with side-by-side storefronts.

Current consumer trends would support that area's being more of a big-box center with, perhaps, a Home Depot and a Costco, Famous said.

But Providence Town Center's Main Street design is what local officials wanted, he said, adding that he is "not the least bit concerned" about getting the center filled with a variety of retail and restaurants, and drawing enough shoppers and diners to support them.

His challenge will be finding tenants for the relatively blah strip malls built decades ago that will not be able to compete with the polish and retail heft of complexes such as Providence Town.

As the economy improves, Famous said, vacancies in those older centers are likely to be filled with nonretail uses: day-care centers and medical offices.