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L.L. Bean coming to Northtown Plaza site in Amherst

The owner of the Northtown Plaza has reeled in one of the big-name retailers from its wish list.

L.L. Bean has signed a lease to open its first store in the area at the Amherst shopping plaza, according to a document filed with the Erie County Clerk's Office.

The venerable outdoor retailer is the second tenant publicly identified for the plaza on Sheridan Drive near Niagara Falls Boulevard, after the Whole Foods Market now under construction at the site.

Industry experts said attracting a merchant with the reputation and popularity of L.L. Bean represents a major coup for WS Development, the company that bought Northtown Plaza in 2015 and has spent the past two years putting in place its plans to transform the shopping center.

"It could be the game changer for the future development of that plaza," said Colleen C. DiPirro, president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

The family-owned retailer is known for its catalog of classic duck boots, cable-knit sweaters, lifestyle gear and other apparel fit for wearing on a cold winter night in Maine – or Buffalo.

WS Development officials on Friday declined comment on the L.L. Bean lease signing, referring The Buffalo News to a spokesman for the Maine-based retailer. Mac McKeever, head of public relations for L.L. Bean, would not say why the company was interested in coming to the Buffalo area and would not provide a preview of the Amherst store.

"I'll release any and all new store information as I am able," McKeever said in an email.

The L.L. Bean lease is the first sign that WS Development's strategy of turning over the current tenant roster in the Northtown Plaza to make way for upscale, out-of-town retailers with wide followings is paying off.

Massachusetts-based WS Development announced in 2014 that it planned to buy the Northtown Plaza and build a $15 million Whole Foods grocery store in the shopping center, followed by a $75 million redevelopment of the rest of the plaza. The $18.5 million purchase of the 19-acre plaza closed in 2015.

As Whole Foods gets closer, Northtown Plaza empties out

The Whole Foods is set to open this summer, but the developer hasn't offered specifics on what's happening in the rest of the 65-year-old shopping center.

The Northtown Plaza was filled when WS Development took over, but it has emptied out over the past two years. Just six businesses remain, including Fantastic Sams, Federal Meats and KeyBank.

WS Development circulated a marketing document three years ago with the names of the types of retailers the company sought to bring to Amherst. The list included L.L. Bean, Gap, Banana Republic, J. Crew and Lucky Brand Jeans, though many of the companies already are located at the Boulevard Mall or the Walden Galleria.

Also on Friday, The News obtained an updated list, dated March 2015, that has some different names on it, though it does not include L.L. Bean. It's not clear which companies have signed leases, which have signed letters of intent or which are just on WS Development's wish list.

The 2015 plan includes preppy clothier Vineyard Vines, coveted burger chain Shake Shack, luxury accessories maker Kate Spade, Buffalo Optical, current tenant Mabel Danahy's and home furnishings retailer Crate & Barrel.

The document filed with the County Clerk's Office, known as a memorandum of lease, is dated March 10. It shows L.L. Bean and WS Asset Management, under the name Northtown Property Owner LLC, reached an agreement on a 10-year lease, with a five-year option to renew, that took effect Feb. 27. Terms of the lease itself are not disclosed in the memo.

Drawings filed with the memo show a 15,500-square-foot store along the Eggert Road side of the plaza, but a note on the document cautions the final location of the building is subject to change.

WS Development is widely expected to tear down the two existing retail buildings on the plaza property and to construct new stores for any new tenants the company attracts to the plaza.

The first leases are the most difficult to get, DiPirro said, and the credibility of the two companies makes it that much easier for WS Development to attract other retailers.

"If we can get enough diversity of stores like that, it does become a destination," she said.

DiPirro said she'd like to see a variety of national and local stores and restaurants, and even mixed-use development, in the plaza. WS Development has had success with that model in some of its other properties nationally.

Stores such as Saks Off 5th, Neiman Marcus Last Call and Bloomingdale's Outlet often follow Whole Foods and L.L. Bean to the kind of high-end shopping center that WS Development is trying to build, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of New York retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group.

The closest L.L. Bean store is in Victor, near Rochester, in the Eastview Mall. L.L. Bean also has stores upstate in the Syracuse suburb of Fayetteville and in the Colonie Center mall, outside Albany, which hosts a Whole Foods.

Fans swear by the durability of the clothing and the sporting goods, and the popularity of L.L. Bean has endured even as that of competitors Cabela's, Gander Mountain and Eastern Mountain Sports has ebbed and flowed, Flickinger said.

"L.L. Bean is doing as well as ever," Flickinger said. "A fantastic performance brand for people who just want to stay warm and dry at Bills games."

The commitment of Whole Foods, L.L. Bean and Nordstrom Rack, in nearby Boulevard Consumer Square, Flickinger said, is a sign of the region's recent revival in the eyes of national retailers.

"L.L. Bean 10, 15 years ago wouldn't even think of being in a market of Buffalo's size, simply because it was too small and shrinking," Flickinger said. "Now Buffalo is one of the prime opportunity markets."

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