polo canvas shoes Developer has grand plans for the largely empty WaterMark Place in Bessemer
Car sales magnate turned real estate developer Anthony Underwood has big plans for the failing WaterMark Place outlet mall. (The Birmingham News / Frank Couch)
Anthony Underwood wants to pack everything that’s good about Alabama into the vacant space left at his struggling outlet mall in Bessemer.
“We are looking ahead to the future of this place, and that future is not as an outlet mall,” Underwood said. “It’s rare that you have both a grand vision and a place to see it fulfilled. We have that here.”
His vision calls for WaterMark Place to become a destination for both tourists and locals to see, taste, touch, hear and experience the products, foods, music and destinations that make Alabama Alabama. Plus, Underwood said he is leading a push to make WaterMark a state “welcome center” with information on state tourist sites.
A grander vision calls for a “4 D” theater at the center that, like a Disney World ride, would use high definition movie screens and added touches including moving seats, misting sprays and piped in smells to take visitors on a virtual tour of the state. Underwood imagines flying over Mt. Cheaha with fall colors in full splendor, getting sprayed by the waters of Little River Canyon and smelling the salty air of the Gulf beaches.
Underwood said he recognizes the plans are ambitious considering the center’s long standing challenges.
“People ask me if I’m in over my head, and I tell them, ‘Yes, I am,'” Underwood said. “I have more freedom to work when I’m operating over my head. I don’t bump my head as much as when I’m operating down at a lower level.”
Jim Searcey, project manager with the Birmingham Business Alliance, has seen Underwood’s plans for WaterMark Place and said he hopes they come to fruition.
“It’s an interesting concept,” Searcey said. “It would be an asset for the region and add another facet of what we are able to offer those who visit here as well as those who live here.”
The new attractions should boost business for the remaining retailers at the center, which has shed tenants. Liz Claiborne, Osh Kosh B’gosh, Polo Ralph Lauren, Strasburg Children, Carter’s,
Tommy Hilfiger, Gap Outlet, Lane Bryant and Legg’s Hanes Bali Playtex remain, occupying about 35 percent of the 186,000 square foot center.
In addition to the 15 acres the WaterMark development comprises, there are an additional five acres to expand the existing center or add a hotel. Underwood’s AU Properties LLC owns another 20 acres for future development near Alabama Adventure.
Aleshia Witherspoon, property manager at WaterMark Place, said the revamp and future expansion plans have a heavy emphasis on food.
“We know how to eat in Alabama and we are known for having great food,” Witherspoon said. “Plus, we know the best way to get people to come and to stay is to feed them.”
She said two restaurants are close to committing to space at WaterMark and more are being targeted.
One plan is to offer all “100 dishes to eat in Alabama before you die” as identified by the Alabama Tourism Department. The foods could be recreated in a restaurant or visiting chefs could prepare the foods themselves as part of a rotating feature.
Other possibilities being explored:
>> A Bible museum using the art from Mishkan Galleries in Theodore. Artist David Hamilton has created replicas of everything from Solomon’s Temple to the Ark of the Covenant. Witherspoon said WaterMark hopes to have a rotating display of Hamilton’s creations and to regularly host field trips.
>> Attractions to bring to life the state’s geography, culture, business history and noted personalities.
>> Entertainment venues that showcase music by famous artists from the state. The state wineries will be represented with regular tastings and products for sale. A new event space is being built to host family reunions, wedding receptions, corporate events or any number of affairs.
>> A walk of fame to recognize famous people with roots in the state, from the Commodores to Country Boy Eddie to Condoleezza Rice.
“We want to give appreciation and highlight those pioneers who helped make people feel good about the state,” Underwood said.
Underwood would like for WaterMark Place to recognize the state’s 400 plus municipalities by selling items that highlight them all. In some cases, it might be a T shirt or coffee cup; others might choose something else. Whatever it is, Underwood said, the goal is to have every place represented.
“Really, all of this is about Southern hospitality on a very grand scale,” he said. “We think there is always a market for that.”
The activity is meant to help capture those passing by on their way to the Alabama Adventure amusement park or to University of Alabama football games in Tuscaloosa, as well as to create regular destination events for those who live in Bessemer and surrounding areas.
The lack of visibility off Interstate 20/59 has been cited as a reason WaterMark Place, which opened in 2000, has struggled as an outlet mall. Underwood said he aims to combat that by making the center a destination on its own.
“It’s more of a mind set,
” Underwood said. “We want to get it to where this becomes second nature. We’re fortunate we have very creative people on board who know the community and live here.”