The $200 million Mellody Farm retail center in Vernon Hills passed an early test of shopper interest Wednesday, as a ceremonial ribbon cutting played to a full house of VIPs and invited guests.
Parking lots were filled within an hour of Whole Foods Market's and a Barnes & Noble prototype store's becoming the last two of five anchors to open at the 270,000-square-foot center, joining HomeGoods, REI Co-op and Nordstrom Rack.
Curiosity and a chance to kick the tires on new arrivals certainly played a part. But village leaders, who provided a $20 million incentive, and Regency Centers, the Florida-based company that brought the project to town, hope it's the start of a long run in an age of online shopping.
Matt Hendy, vice president of Regency Centers, said he disagrees with those who say online shopping "will put places like this out of business."
People have "a desire, a need and an instinctual drive" to interact with others, he said. Besides the "world-class retailers" and a lengthy roster of planned restaurants, the center's architecture, design elements and other features make it a place to be, he added.
"There's something here for everyone," Hendy said.
The 55 acres on the northeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue (Route 21) and Townline Road (Route 60) was annexed into the village in 1986. Though considered a prime corner in a busy commercial area, it was slow to develop until Regency Centers approached the village about four years ago.
"It's important," Vernon Hills Mayor Roger Byrne said of the development. "We invested in it. We felt strongly about the Regency group to build it and finish it for us to get our money back.
"This is a different experience than the big-box stores."
Village Building Commissioner Mike Atkinson said the materials and other elements distinguish the center.
"The attention to detail here is really the top of the line. They didn't cut any corners," he said.
Former 25-year village Trustee Cindy Hebda, who resigned and moved to Indiana July 1, returned to see the completed project.
"I love the architecture. I love the storefronts; the way they've done it is great," she said. "I never expected it to be this nice."
The Whole Foods Market includes a full-service coffee bar, scratch bakery, the Townline Taproom with 20 specialty beers, and Minneapolis-based Masu Express, featuring Japanese-inspired cuisine.
Tracy Coleman and Liz Brush were among the lunch-hour throng picking up salads to take back to work.
"It's something different," Coleman said. "When you work here for so many years, you get tired of the same thing."
Both said they liked the tenant selection of the new center but had one criticism.
"I can't believe with all these stores not open yet, there's no parking," said Brush.
When fully leased in the fall of 2019, Mellody Farm will have 50 merchants.