Liberty Center change: New company in charge of bringing in stores, restaurants

Liberty Center’s real estate developer will not be handling leasing or management of the $350 million mixed-use project in Butler County as of next week.

Those duties will shift Sept. 1 from Columbus-based Steiner + Associates to Chicago-based professional services and investment management company JLL, Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell told the Journal-News.

“Clearly we had a very good relationship with Steiner + Associates because we worked with them for over a decade and whenever you have a good relationship, you hate to see that person move on,” Farrell said. “JLL as we understand it is one of the largest in the country and so we’re excited to see which new stores and restaurants they might bring into our area.”

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Beau Arnason, Steiner + Associates executive vice president of asset performance, said “the institutional investment group that is the current equity partner in Liberty Center has retained an institutional property management and leasing company to oversee the retail portion” of Liberty Center effective Sept. 1.

“Steiner + Associates will continue to develop its significant holdings adjacent to Liberty Center, which includes about 60 acres,“ Arnason said in a statement. “Steiner will also continue to be partners in the hotel (AC Hotel by Marriott Cincinnati at Liberty Center), the office building and the residential buildings (the Grant and the Fillmore) within Liberty Center.”

Farrell said Liberty Twp. will continue to work with Steiner + Associates as it develops the second phase of the mixed use project, while first developing.

“We don’t have a timetable on that yet, we just know that it is going to continue,” he said.

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Steiner + Associates representatives told township officials in July that Liberty Center has brought in 7.5 million visitors in the previous 12 months, a figure that was “well above their expectations,” Farrell said.

“Overall, Liberty Center is doing very well and the retail (aspect), obviously, that is an area where everybody is not doing quite as well as they would like and I think that’s one of the reasons for JLL getting more involved,” he said.

JLL was already involved with the project, working with Steiner + Associated to lease the Offices at Liberty Center, the mixed use project's 75,000 square feet of Class A office space located above ground floor retail.

Farrell said he does not anticipate any significant changes in the guest experience as a result of the switch.

“Behind the scenes the operation will differ a little bit,” he said. “We don’t know to what level until we have a chance to work with the new management team.”

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A spokeswoman for Steiner + Associates, which developed the $350 million mixed-use project with Chicago-based Bucksbaum Retail Partners, said management of the center includes entertainment-based events held there.

JLL’s Regional Director Janine Christian will oversee the retail property management for the asset, and Vice Presidents Kevin Thobe, Giorgio Karras and Chad Macy will oversee retail leasing.

“Liberty Center has a thriving daytime population and socially engaged, supportive community," Christian said. "It’s a perfect place for people to live, work and play. We are thrilled to be supporting an award-winning development and will use our local expertise and national retail relationships to provide a mix of unique retailers to the community.”

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Apollo Commercial Real Estate Finance Inc., which provided a $165 million construction loan for the project, had given Liberty Center developers a four-month extension beyond a May deadline, according to media partner WCPO.

In 2017, Apollo Commercial Real Estate Finance CEO Stuart Rothstein expressed concerns about leasing progress in the retail portion of the center, which at that point had an occupancy rate somewhere in the low 80 percent range. He said he was hoping to get that number above 90 percent by May, when he expected the loan to be paid off in a refinancing.

Liberty Center has markedly boosted its occupancy rate since then, announcing this summer that it would welcome several new tenants: home-décor retailer Burlap & Birch; women’s clothing store Sorella Boutique; Sugar & Spice Spa/Event Center and Molly’s Cupcakes, which will open its first Ohio location at Liberty Center.

In addition, iFly Indoor Skydiving will open its first Ohio location and its 29th in the United States on an outlot at the front of Liberty Center.

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Rothstein, in a July 26 conference call with investors, said the location is “somewhere in the 80s percent occupied,” “clearly works” and “the mixed use assets that were part of the broader development are working.”

“I think, it’s just given the ever-changing retail landscape,” Rothstein said. “This is about coming up with a merchandising plan or strategy that works for the long-term and not just haphazardly putting tenants in spaces just to sort of create the illusion of greater occupancy, but actually, coming up with a strategy that continues to make this a vibrant center on a go-forward basis which will certainly enhance our ability to get out as a lender and hopefully, create value for the sponsor on a go-forward basis.”

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