Poised for growth: Prairie Lakes developers still dreaming big in Sun Prairie

Talk to Chad Fedler, the energetic VP of Prairie Development, about his company’s ambitious commercial project at the U.S. 151/County C interchange and he may eventually get around to telling you what won’t be part of the shopping center.

“When we first laid this out – you like to dream big, right? – one of the thoughts I had was, wouldn’t it be cool if you did an ice-skating rink?” said Fedler. “With the pine trees in the wintertime, you could decorate them, you could make it the center focus of the shopping center. You’d have a place for people to go, and you would have a lot of activity.”

Eventually, Fedler says, reality intruded on those plans when it became clear that the cost would be prohibitive. For one thing, the rink would have required a refrigerated sheet of ice, rather than just a flooded pool – and the developers would have had to throw in a Zamboni for good measure in order to keep the ice smooth and skateable.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvement really in the last six months as far as level of interest in people looking to do deals.” – Chad Fedler, Prairie Development

“All of a sudden it was a half-million-dollar idea, and it just wasn’t practical,” said Fedler.

So while the company’s decision to abandon that particular dream may mean that Prairie Lakes won’t exactly be Rockefeller Center, the dream itself could be seen as a signal to shoppers that big things are nevertheless coming. Chad Fedler, as well as the two principal partners in the venture, Ron Fedler (Chad’s father) and Jerry Connery, are thinking big, and they’re not merely focused on squeezing as many retailers as they can onto this commercially fertile piece of Sun Prairie farmland.

Indeed, throughout the course of a 30-minute interview, Fedler punctuated his answers with words like “character” and “aesthetic appeal” so often, you’d think he was planning a World’s Fair instead of a run-of-the mill shopping center. But as he’d likely be the first to tell you, that’s just the point. The space he envisions won’t be run-of-the-mill. Indeed, his excitement about the development’s landscaping and courtyard elements is as clear an indication as any that he’s not simply interested in another sprawling concrete jungle of big boxes and strip-mall retailers.

Case in point: The company has already invested $10 million in landscaping and infrastructure. Its signature Shoppes at Prairie Lakes area, which will be surrounded by five anchors (including the already up-and-running Costco, Target, and Woodman’s, as well as a planned-for 17-plex Marcus Theater), will have as its focal point a 14,000-sq.-ft. courtyard featuring a firepit, a waterfall, and a meandering stream beneath a crosswalk.

In addition, the grounds make liberal use of green space, and Fedler sees the wildlife that gathers there as more of a draw than a nuisance.

“Coming here, especially in the spring, summer, and fall, it truly is beautiful,” said Fedler. “So you can come to a center, shop, and get everything you need, but as one customer told me, it’s peaceful when you’re walking around out here. And it’s unique. Look at the Target store, look at the stone elements of it. It’s classy, it’s timeless. We expect users to maintain a high degree of architecture.”

Good neighbors

Of course, no Target location is ever going to be confused with Notre Dame Cathedral – nor will Costco be confused with Neiman Marcus – but as big-box retailers and wholesalers go, Target and Costco are considered strong draws, and they offer great potential for co-tenancy. According to Fedler, stores like Woodman’s and Costco regularly bring in shoppers from 50 or 60 miles away, providing the sort of magnetic appeal that will help support the development’s smaller shops. (In Greater Madison’s more socially conscious strongholds, Costco’s reputation as a fair and generous employer also can do nothing but improve the shopping center’s prospects.)

But along with the center’s architectural and landscaping elements, co-tenancy is something that Fedler is keen to keep an eye on.

“One thing that we’ve learned is that there’s various tenants that will attract other co-tenants that you’d like to have,” said Fedler. “Mainly tenants who cater to a clientele that has a higher disposable income. For example, Starbucks [which is located inside the Prairie Lakes Target] is a great coffee purveyor. Are there others that do the same thing in their space? Yes. But there’s something about the Starbucks customer where people will go out of their way to find a Starbucks. It’s almost cultish.

“Why does it matter? Because if people are that willing to seek out a Starbucks, other small retailers want to locate next to that because you need to have disposable income to spend $5 on a coffee drink every day, and also they have brand loyalty and so others want to feed off that. So yes, it matters.”

While several of the Prairie Lakes development's anchors are in place, the shopping center still has plenty of room to grow.
 

It’s also a consideration that feeds into the company’s long-term goals.

“We would like to bring an element of fashion into Prairie Lakes, whether it be a department store or whether it be the type of fashion users you would see in a mall that are not necessarily located on the east side of Madison, a JoS. A. Bank, a J.Jill, or a Talbots. And as we continue to build out with the bigger users and then start filling in with the smaller multitenant space, like the Starbucks and those kind of users, all of a sudden that starts to attract attention.”

Location, location, location

Of course, much has been made of Marcus Theatres’ decision to locate on the Prairie Lakes site instead of in the city of Madison. While Fedler is careful not to wade too deeply into the ongoing intercity controversy over the merits of building in Madison versus surrounding communities, he does note that Sun Prairie provided a welcoming environment for his company’s development.

“Where else can you go where you can drop off your application and have your approvals in six to seven weeks, and you can be in the ground if you have all your engineering done, etc., within two months?” asked Fedler. “That’s pretty amazing. I mean, Marcus was approved, I think it was seven weeks, and Costco might have taken a little bit longer because there were a few little tweaks to the buildings, but it was eight or nine. That’s a big deal.”

But while Fedler no doubt saw the opportunity to work with Sun Prairie as a plus, the siting of the development primarily followed changes in the built environment – and in that respect, the company had the expertise of a real estate savant in partner Jerry Conner.

“For fun, Jerry likes to find real estate,” said Fedler. “When he goes on a vacation, he goes places and looks at real estate. And I don’t care where he is. You could send him to Seattle and within three hours he’ll be in a real estate office someplace looking at real estate – on vacation. That’s what he does.

“So when [Ron] and Jerry learned about this interchange going in, they saw the possibilities there.”

Gaining steam?

While Fedler fairly exudes confidence, you could forgive him if he still feels buffeted by the ill economic winds of the past several years. Today, Prairie Lakes is about 40% built out, but if you’d asked him in 2006 where the development would be by now, he would have likely said fully built and up and running (if not sprinting). Of course, everyone’s expectations changed with the abrupt popping of the real estate bubble in 2008, and commercial developers were among the hardest hit.

With recent indications that the economy may be finding firmer footing, particularly in the real estate sector, the future would appear to be brighter for Prairie Lakes. Perhaps the biggest indication that the area was poised to become a commercial powerhouse was the recent construction of a monstrous Woodman’s grocery store – visible to traffic from U.S. 151 – just east of the development. (While Woodman’s is not officially part of Fedler’s and Connery’s development, as an anchor retailer, it pulls considerable weight and is seen as a welcome addition.)

 

“We’re seeing a lot more activity than we have previously,” said Fedler. “I don’t think it will ever be the same level of activity or growth that we saw in ’05, ’06, ’07, however if it can maintain like this, I would say we’re looking at four to six years [before completion], and maybe it will happen. It just depends. If we can get another great anchor and the movie theater builds, wow, that all of a sudden changes the Shoppes at Prairie Lakes really quickly.”

Fedler says that interest in the development has picked up in particular in the last half-year, coinciding with a slate of economic indicators that show real estate may have finally bottomed out.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvement really in the last six months as far as level of interest in people looking to do deals,” said Fedler. “I think that’s going to continue simply because I believe there’s so much money that’s been parked over the years and not allocated or not deployed because people are waiting to see what’s going to happen, and who knows what’s going to happen and when? However, I think you have a time now where they’re not going to wait anymore, where they’re saying, ‘We have some capital and we need to deploy it. Otherwise it’s going to sit in the bank at a quarter percent, so let’s do some things.’” 

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