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Organic Growth: Sarasota Center Inks Giant Lease
 

In one of the largest commercial leases signed so far this year, United Natural Foods Inc. is taking up 400,000 square feet at Meridian Distribution Center, a former grocery warehouse near Interstate 75.

The publicly traded company, which distributes natural and organic food items to a broad range of retail customers, expects to create 250 jobs at its Sarasota site, allowing it to qualify for regional tax incentives by offering higher-than-average wages.

Executives at Dayville, Conn.-based United Natural (Nasdaq: UNFI) weren't available for comment.

The latest lease is a huge boost for Meridian Distribution Center, a 950,000-square-foot building on 58 acres previously occupied by Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. (Nasdaq: WINN), based in Jacksonville. Meridian Development Group in Clearwater acquired it for $30 million in January 2006 in a joint venture with Hudson Realty Capital LLC.

Just last month, Meridian signed a 200,000-square-foot lease with Bradenton-based Beall's Inc., which will use the space as a distribution center for its Beall's and Burke's department and outlet stores.

Efficient proximity

By subdividing the old Winn-Dixie space into several large industrial units, the center's owner is able to capture distribution deals with access to I-75 and proximity to nearby ports, said Steve Kossoff, Meridian's managing director.

"Companies are realizing Lakeland is no longer the only option for easy statewide distribution," Kossoff said. The Sarasota facility provides same-day access to 87 percent of the state's population, compared with 61 percent from Lakeland's distribution sites along Interstate 4, he said.

Meridian has already been given quite a bit of credit in reviving the massive warehouse and allowing Sarasota to attract more business.

"Meridian Development Group has redeveloped a facility that can now best serve the needs of our growing economy," said Kathy Baylis, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County.

United Natural has at least 15 distribution centers nationwide, supplying more than 40,000 natural and organic food items to clients ranging from independent grocers to buying clubs. The company posted an 11 percent gain in net income through the third quarter ending April 28 to $13.7 million from $12.3 million a year earlier, along with 15 percent revenue growth of $732.5 million.

The Tampa Bay area's largest lease in 2006 was signed by Saddle Creek Corp. in Winter Haven and totaled 297,549 square feet, according to the Tampa Bay Business Journal's 2007 Book of Lists.

 
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