TallGirlDanceBy Gary Nager

How do you sum up, in one word, how many people in New Tampa and Wesley Chapel feel about the opening of the Tampa Premium Outlets (TPO) on S.R. 56?

I think Stacey Nance, the general manager of the sparkling new outlet mall, said it best at the festive VIP Grand Opening event on October 29:

“Finally!”

After years of delays due to environmental concerns, TPO — which originally was supposed to open as a series of big box stores (similar to The Grove shopping plaza off Oakley Blvd. in Wesley Chapel) before both The Grove and the Shops at Wiregrass mall — has finally taken its opening bow.

And, despite previous concerns (and a Sierra Club lawsuit) about environmental impacts on the Cypress Creek watershed (a major source of drinking water for New Tampa) and the traffic the mall would bring, from what I’ve seen and heard so far, the reviews for the 441,000-sq.-ft. designer outlet mall are mostly raves.

And, with the deals the mall’s 100+ stores were offering throughout  the Grand Opening weekend (Oct. 29-Nov. 1) — and the quality of the merchandise and the shops themselves — it was hard to not be impressed with TPO as a whole, regardless of any nit-picky little issues some have with it, such as:

1) TPO’s Name & Address — Despite the involvement and best efforts of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce from Day One of this project, the mall’s main address, on Grand Cypress Dr., is in Lutz, not Wesley Chapel — and certainly not in Tampa — although (as Nance has had to explain many times) Tampa is the city most people who live outside of our area will look for when they search on-line for it.

2) The Food Court — Those of us who have been looking for some great new restaurants are not going to find them in the mall’s five-eatery Food Court. On the other hand, the lines at Asian Chao, South Philly Cheesesteaks and Villa Italian kept moving.

3) Traffic & Parking — The opening weekend traffic at TPO was greatly helped by the mall’s hiring of multiple off-duty law enforcement officers and their vehicles. How long that additional help will be on the scene remains to be seen, but this reporter was impressed by the lack of delays on S.R. 56.

As for parking, it’s also been pretty incredible how hard all those valet parking and orange-vested parking “directors” already have been working and how easily visitors have been able to get in and out of the mall’s 2,200 parking spaces (plus overflow lots). The opening weekend had some temperatures in the low 90s, but you have to wonder how the parking help will hold up in the heat of our Florida summers.

BandWEBVIP Breakfast

John and I were among the hundreds of media, Chamber and local governmental dignitaries on hand on Thursday morning for the mall’s amazing VIP breakfast.

With incredible food like breakfast crepes, pecan-crusted chicken & waffle “bites” and mini-Monte Christo sandwiches and adult beverages (I was among those raving about the mimosas  with not only orange, but also peach and even passion fruit juice) by Puff n’ Stuff Catering of Tampa, elected officials like State Rep. Danny Burgess, Pasco clerk & comptroller Paul O’Neil and Pasco commissioners Mike Moore, Jack Mariano and Board chair Ted Schrader, plus lots of WCCC and New Tampa and Wesley Chapel Rotary Club members helped Nance and crew celebrate TPO’s opening in style before Schrader and the top brass from Simon Premium Outlets cut the ribbon. Everyone who attended the invitation-only VIP breakfast also received a portable stand-up cooler as a parting gift.

Opening Weekend Deals

Although I certainly didn’t get to check out all of the 100+ stores that were open for the first weekend (a few more, like the Aldo outlet will open within the next week or two, bringing the total number of shops up to 110), there’s no doubt that the deals — and giveaways — were hot and heavy for the opening.

Many stores were offering not only 60-70-percent off (and more!), but also free gifts to the first wave of shoppers as the stores opened their doors following the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

SaksSignUpOf course, many people skipped the ribbon-cutting to line up in front of their favorite stores for their free gift(s).Considering that I only wear New Balance athletic shoes, I was one of the first 50 in line at the New Balance outlet, which earned me a $15 gift card, in addition to 60-percent-off the shoes I bought (which were already on clearance for half off the regular price). When it was all said and done, I went home with an incredible pair of “kicks,” plus some New Balance gym shorts and orthotic inserts for my shoes for less than $70!

And, while I didn’t get on line soon enough after that to get a free gift at the Calvin Klein outlet, I returned a $20 shirt I had purchased at the Prime Outlets of Ellenton (does anyone still remember how much further that drive is?), exchanged it for a $60 dress shirt that also was on clearance and with all of the discounts applied, I ended up getting that shirt for about $3!

Will the deals stay that impressive now that the opening weekend is over and the post-Halloween holiday season has officially begun? That remains to be seen. The whole concept of an outlet mall is that the merchandise sold there at deep discounts is so expensive to start with that only the rich could afford to shop at many of the stores without those discounts.

A case in point is TPO’s “signature” store, Saks Off 5th. Although I found it hard to believe how much merchandise in Saks has the same labels — Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, etc.  — as the ones in TPO’s individual outlets, the huge Off 5th store literally has something for everyone. I didn’t feel that the deals were quite as good there as at other stores, but I have shopped at the original Saks ON 5th Ave. in NYC, so I know there’s nothing “cheap” there. 


Bring It, Bethenny!

One of the highlights of the opening weekend was the appearance of  reality TV star, author and Skinny Girl owner Bethenny Frankel.

Frankel, who has appeared on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart,” “The Real Housewives of New York City” and “Bethenny Ever After,” also founded Skinnygirl Cocktails, authored four self-help books and hosted the talk show, “Bethenny.”

She told me she appeared at the TPO opening not to promote herself, but because, “I’m an outlet mall shopper from way back and I’m here to give shopping tips to the women here.” Her #1 tip? “Clean out those closets, ladies! Why bring new stuff to clutter up your limited space when you still have things in your closet that no longer fit or are old or pilly?”

Considering how long we have waited for the opening of TPO, I’d have to agree that the outlet mall’s opening weekend was a smashing success. TPO may only be about half the size of the Shops at Wiregrass (which has more than 800,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurant space), but it’s definitely a new force to be reckoned with that will surely bring more mom-and-pop businesses to our area. Take a bow, Simon!

For more info about the new TPO and its VIP Shopping Club, please visit PremiumOutlets.com/Tampa.

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