Hitching Post Plaza has not always been much to look at. Like much of East Naples, the plaza has known hard times, but in case you haven’t noticed, East Naples is on the rise, and so is the Hitching Post Plaza.
Suddenly, the plaza has a new look and near-100% occupancy. A roster of 24 friendly merchants makes the modern—and spotlessly clean—shopping center a one-stop-shopping destination for East Naples shoppers.
The recently renovated shopping center checks a lot of boxes for residents of East Naples and beyond—it’s an easy 20-minute drive from Marco. The tenant mix didn’t happen by accident. It has been cultivated by Christopher Shucart, President of JCS Realty Group, who oversees the details of the shopping center that is owned and most importantly—managed—by JCS.
“I think we have a great tenant mix,” he remarked. “A couple of large nationals, some local one-store operators. We obviously want a high-quality tenant that’s going to succeed in business. We try to figure out as much as possible how that tenant is going to do. We’ve had a number of people inquire about opening a clothing store. For me personally, I couldn’t let them do it. With the internet competing with clothing, it’s a very, very, tough business. I’d rather be the bad guy for not leasing upfront than to have a bad situation later on and we’re both in this situation. We try to find businesses that are enhanced by the internet and not hampered by the internet. A hair salon is a perfect example. They’re in the process of expanding and increasing their space. A nail salon, restaurants, cell phones, if you look around, there’s not a lot of places that are competing with the internet.
“East Naples is a great spot—and it’s got a long way to go too, I think. It’s got a lot of great residential. You’ve got some medium-to-upper end income, and you’ve got some lower income. But there’s a lot of good people out here. It got ignored and it gets a bad reputation. We have quite a bit of seasonal people here. If we had more of a year-round population, we would be able to support some more commercial and maybe a little more expansive restaurant types. I feel like it’s pretty seasonal here. Every day there’s more good people moving here, and it’s getting to be better every day as we say.”
Touring the property with Shucart, a few things are immediately evident. First of all, it’s obvious that he takes a personal interest in all of the business owners at the Hitching Post Plaza. It’s also obvious that he cares about the people who own and operate the businesses and wants to see them succeed.
Starting at the north end of the plaza, Shucart talks business with a manager of the Dollar General Store, which is an anchor tenant. Shucart remembers what the building looked like when JCS Realty Group came on board. Occupancy stood at around 40%.
“You know what this place looked like?” Shucart said, reflecting back. “This shopping center was built in three different phases. The late 1970s was the first phase. It’s kind of funny that it took 50 years for this spot to become another grocery store. I worked on this deal for 9 years to get Dollar General here. They’re kind of a grocery anchor. They don’t have perishable items, but you should see the amount of SKUs these guys have. Every item has a SKU number.
“And they do a really good job. If you walk up and down all the aisles, they’ve got tons of stuff. It’s kind of a hybrid grocery store. I thought I knew what they would carry, but they have a far better layout than I thought.”
At the far end of the property, outside Dollar General, is the latest addition to the property. A food truck is within a month or so of opening, depending on how long the permitting process takes.
“This was always just a bare piece of land,” Shucart said. “We went to the county and got it permitted for a food truck. It’s going to be fun. The permitting’s been tough, but hopefully in the next 30-45 days he’ll be open. He’s getting there.”
The food truck is going to be called Mustard’s Last Stand. It will be the 75th restaurant opened by Roy Belvin, who is 85 years young. He’s owned restaurants from New Jersey to the Florida Keys. He bought his first restaurant when he was 21.
“We were voted the best hamburger in the Keys,” Belvin noted. “I’m German-Irish, but all my friends in New York say I should have been Italian. “
Belvin’s new restaurant will feature a variety of hot dogs he listed them down for me. “Chicago hot dogs, West Virginia, Texas, Mexican Red Hots, all different hot dogs. I’ve had food trucks and this and that and everything else, but this is different. We’re going to have carhops over here,” he said, motioning to a row of parking spaces. “We have the trays that go in the windows.”
In the past, Belvin owned five Stewart’s Root Beer Drive–In restaurants. He used carhops in Stewart’s restaurants.
Belvin appreciates his relationship with Shucart, he made that evident as he said, “Let me put it this way. On a scale of 1 to 10 as a landlord, he’s a 1,000. I’ve owned a lot of land myself. Of course, I’m a landlord too in Jersey. He’s fantastic.”
Obviously, the best relationships are reciprocal, and Shucart seems to have developed a string of two-way relationships along the length of the shopping center.
“We have a fair amount of tenants,” Shucart said, referring to the Hitching Post Plaza and JCS Realty Group’s five other holdings in Naples. “I’ve met a lot of business owners and entrepreneurs over the years. If they were all like Roy at the age of 85. He’s the American Spirit 1,000-fold.”
Both men are happy with a project Shucart completed on the north end of the plaza, facing Belvin’s food truck.
“This was a blank wall,” Shucart said, motioning toward the wall that’s been painted black and covered with an artistic blend of convex mirrors in various sizes.
“I like what Chris did there,” Belvin added. “People stop there and take pictures and everything else. When the sun hits those mirrors, it’s beautiful. He did a real good job there.”
Giribaldi Mexican Grill & Bakery is a staple in the East Naples Community. When the owners weren’t available for a picture, Shucart called them personally and managed to arrange to have a staff picture taken for the Coastal Breeze News within a couple of hours.
“This store here,” Shucart said admiringly of Giribaldi, “they make their own tortillas. They actually distribute their tortillas all over town. So, if you see in the back of the building, they’ve got 20 or 30 coolers full of tortillas that they’ll take and drop off all over town. People will either sell them or use them.”
Another restaurant called R’s Diner is a neighbor of Giribaldi’s on the strip.
“This was one of the original tenants,” Shucart mentions. “They do breakfast and lunch. They’ve been around forever.”
From out of nowhere, someone calls out, “What’s going on Chris? It’s Friday!” Everyone seems happy to see Shucart.
Passing the lineup of businesses, Shucart shares inside stories. Take Michoacana Ice Cream, for instance.
“This brand of ice cream has a following,” he said. “Ahmad went all the way to Mexico to learn how to make it.”
Bemo Sanchez, the owner of Your Dream Interiors and More, sees Shucart and hustles over, holding what appears to be an armrest. Shucart compliments Sanchez sincerely, pointing out the quality of the workmanship.
“I had damage to the back of one of the armrests on my golf cart,” Shucart said. “Bemo did such a good job on the other one that I had him do the second one so they’d both match. He’s terrific. He just did my dad’s couches in his living room. We were both astonished at how terrific of a job he did. He’s a local owner/operator.”
The Hitching Post Plaza isn’t Shucart’s only responsibility as President of JCS Realty Group. However, it’s obvious that he has his finger on the pulse of the bustling shopping center.
“Every day is a little different on what needs are required to be met,” Shucart reflects. “But it’s interesting. Every day is a different day. We just finished a lighting project. We added LED lights to the parking lot. That’s a big thing from a safety and customer experience standpoint. We feel that if the customer feels comfortable, they’re more apt to come here more often and spend more money or patronize the businesses more often. We just finished some improvements in the back. When there’s a project going on, I’m here daily.
“We’ve got six commercial properties in town that we manage, lease and operate. We have a desire to not grow it beyond that too much because we have such a hands-on approach to management and leasing and operation. We want to be able to spend the time necessary to make the right decisions.”
JCS Realty Group is a small hard-working team.
“We have two full–time people in the office,” Shucart said. “One part–time person in the office. Two people in the field. Then myself and my father. We’re very lean. We do it by design. We have a very, very, hands-on approach to all operations and decisions.”
Shucart enjoys working with his father, James Shucart, who is the chairman of JCS Realty Group.
“We try to keep a positive attitude,” Shucart said. “We try to keep a mantra that whatever’s best for the company is what’s best for him and I and the rest of the team. We look at it differently. We literally look at it as our staff is part of the family. We want everybody in the company to feel the same way. We’re all approachable. Able to talk about things. How do you want to treat your family? You’re not going to get along with your family every day, but you have mutual respect. As long as everyone has the same goal of making their lives better, and our properties and our tenants’ lives better. It’s the right attitude to have.”
Maintenance Supervisor Bradley Charleston stops by as Shucart takes a phone call. Charleston mentions that he’s approaching 3 years on the job. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Charleston stated.
Shucart finishes the call and acknowledges Charleston. “You’ve got your 3-year anniversary coming up!”
The next stop is Val’s Shoe Repair. Valerie Di Crosta has been in the shoe repair business for 51 years. His wife works with him, doing alterations.
“I started in 1969,” Di Crosta said proudly. “I was on the east coast for 23 years. I moved here and retired. I saw that Chris needed a tenant and I decided to come over here and help him out,” he said with a laugh.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for shoe repair,” Shucart said. “It’s an art. It’s a craft. You can’t just figure it out. He’s been at it a long time.” Shucart and Di Crosta talk shop for a minute, and Di Crosta admires the craftmanship on Shucart’s armrest.
“Every one of our tenants are like that,” Shucart said, referring to the professionalism and friendliness exhibited by Di Crosta. “They have great stories. They’re good people. They’re just here to work hard. You’ve got to have a good relationship. Every year we buy each of our tenants a gift at Christmas, and we buy them from a tenant. Last year, we did flowers; we bought every tenant that we have flowers.”
Those relationships are undoubtedly part of the reason for the Hitching Post Plaza’s success. That was made clear as Shucart said, “We’ve got two spaces that are vacant, per se. But I’ve also got things that are in motion. We’re 95% occupied. I’ll take 95% all day.”
Shucart estimates that between 500 and 1,000 people visit the Hitching Post Plaza daily. There’s no doubt the tenant mix has a lot to do with that traffic.
“You can find more of a variety of different things here than you can in other places,” Shucart said. “You can find it all in one spot.”
Shucart also feels that the age of the Hitching Post Plaza works in its favor in some ways as he said, “One of the things with this being an older property is that you can’t build like this anymore.”
Newer shopping centers might be set further back from the road and have more landscaping requirements.
“There’s more parking actually, in the front because of certain landscaping requirements,” Shucart said. “So we have an overabundance of parking and an overabundance of visibility, which makes it good for the customers and for the tenants. We made a very big effort on signage and making sure that the tenants have the biggest and most colorful signage that is permitted by code. So, when you get here you can really read what the tenants’ names are and what services are being offered.”
While touring the property, Shucart noticed a plastic bottle that had been left on the sidewalk in front of a store. That’s notable because it was one of the few examples of litter in the plaza. The back of the shopping center is maintained at the same high standard.
“A lot of people don’t take care of the back of their property,” Shucart explained. “We kind of take the opposite approach. We want the back to be as presentable as possible. And again, it goes back to safety and comfort. If I’m not here, one of our team members is here picking up and watching, just keeping an eye on things. If somebody sees a piece of trash on the ground, they’re probably more likely to throw a piece of trash on the ground. But if they see it as clean and nice, they’re probably going to end up taking care of it. I think the tenants see how we take care of things. We truly want the best for our tenants. We wouldn’t be anything without our tenants. Their success is our success.”
To see a complete listing of the businesses that comprise the Hitching Post Plaza, visit jcsrealtygroup.com and select the Current Tenants tab.