Rouse dancing upscale with new Florida mall

Coral Gables project will offer a glimpse of company's future

May 11, 2001|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The Rouse Co.'s next major retail project to debut will be the Village of Merrick Park, a $285 million shopping mall in Mediterranean architecture under construction in affluent Coral Gables, Fla. Company officials said yesterday that when it opens next year, it will not be just another property in the portfolio.

It also will be the company's future.

Officials at Columbia-based Rouse, who presented Merrick Park and other developments in the pipeline to shareholders at the company's annual meeting yesterday, said the new project is indicative of Rouse's move to luxury and top quality - a push they are predicting will translate into higher earnings for the company.

Analysts have questioned the company's ability to lease all of its new space in a difficult economic climate, but Rouse officials said occupancy is high at the company's existing properties and so is interest in its new projects. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, as well as a collection of exclusive small shops, already have signed on for Merrick Park.

Rouse, developer of Columbia and Harborplace, has five major new regional malls under construction outside Maryland and two major renovations and expansions, said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Anthony W. Deering. Rouse is scheduled to finish the expansion of the Mall in Columbia this year, but most of the company's projects are now in Florida, Texas and Nevada.

They include office and residential as well as retail.

"The population is moving to the Sun Belt, and we're following the population south," Deering said after the meeting.

He said the focus has shifted away from Columbia, where the company began working in 1963, because there is little left to develop and redevelop.

Much of the new development is in Summerlin, a 10-year-old planned community in Las Vegas.

Land sales in Columbia and Summerlin helped boost earnings at the company in the last quarter, Deering said.

Rouse reported this week that in the first quarter, which ended March 31, the company's funds from operations - a key gauge of real estate investment trusts - was up about 12 percent from the first quarter of 2000.

FFO was $70.55 million, or 93 cents per share. That's compared with FFO of $63.14 million, or 82 cents per share, in the first quarter last year.

Rouse's retail centers performed well in the quarter, with occupancy averaging 93 percent.

The company controls 250 office, retail and industrial properties in 22 states.

Also at yesterday's meeting:

Shareholders re-elected Jeremiah E. Casey, Roger W. Schipke and Gerald J.M. Vlak to the board of directors and elected two new directors, Mark R. Tercek and John G. Schreiber.

Recently retired Mathias J. DeVito, who served as president, chief executive officer and chairman, was honored for 33 years of service.

The company announced that the board approved payment of regular quarterly cash dividends on both the common stock and the Series B convertible preferred stock. The common stock dividend will be 35.5 cents per share, payable on June 29 and Sept. 28. The preferred stock dividend will be 75 cents per share, payable July 2 and Oct. 1.

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