Bulldozers are flattening 45 acres to make way for what officials called Wednesday a historic expansion of a popular outlet mall in Aurora.
By next summer, Chicago Premium Outlets at I-88 and Farnsworth Road plans to grow from 120 to 170 stores, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th.
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By the numbersGround was broken Wednesday for the Chicago Premium Outlets expansion in Aurora.
50: New stores being built, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th
170: Total stores the mall will have by summer 2015
290,000: Square footage of addition
1,900: New parking spaces
45: Acres of new area
$110 million: Cost of expansion
$24 million: Property tax incentives available for developer Simon Property Group during the next 20 years
8/2015: Expected opening of new stores
But it's also about the jobs, state and local leaders say. The mall expansion will result in roughly 300 construction jobs and 500 permanent positions.
"This is a big deal, and this is going to help move our city forward positively in the future," Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner said at Wednesday's groundbreaking. "I believe it will spur redevelopment through this corridor on Farnsworth, which will be great."
Simon Premium Outlets is investing $110 million to build the 290,000-square-foot addition and 1,900 parking spaces. Significant cosmetic upgrades are planned, too.
"Today is the beginning of what will be a complete transformation of this 10-year-old property," said Darcy Rutzen, area manager of Chicago Premium Outlets.
Mall officials say the transformation will include fire pits, new pieces of art, additional seating and lighting, and a pond where miniature sailboats might float in the summer and ice skaters may glide in the winter.
Simon has not announced what other tenants might be part of the expansion.
Danielle De Vita, senior vice president of development and acquisitions, said the company aims to make the center one of the "most beautiful" in the country in addition to one of the most successful.
"We're going to have water fountains -- not the drinking kind, the pretty kind," De Vita said. "We're spending millions of dollars to carry that into a full facelift for the entire center."
Bill Wiet, chief development officer for Aurora, said the city and Batavia Unit District 101 are offering a total of $24 million in incentives to Simon Property Group, to be paid during the next two decades as property tax rebates. Incentives add up to roughly 20 percent of the cost of the project.
"We are very excited to be making this kind of investment in the city of Aurora," De Vita said.
Officials called the outlet mall expansion good for shoppers throughout the suburbs and international visitors who make the trip to Aurora when they fly to Chicago.
But Adam Pollet, director of the state's department of commerce and economic opportunity, said the project will make the biggest splash by providing new employment.
"From our perspective, this is all about jobs," Pollet said. "It's about bringing back stability and certainty into the state so businesses like Simon Properties can invest right here in Illinois."
The groundbreaking comes nearly a year after the opening of the region's newest outlet shopping center, Fashion Outlets of Chicago in Rosemont.
Dave Aron, associate professor of marketing at Dominican University, said the high-end feel of Fashion Outlets has increased competition among the outlet venues in Huntley, Gurnee and Aurora. He said traditional regional shopping centers are still struggling to get shoppers in their doors, but as the economic recovery progresses, the prospect of a lower-cost outlet center expanding could be an attractive one for consumers.
"The bar has been raised a little bit," Aron said. "If Aurora wants to keep their share of that particular market, they've got to make themselves bigger and brighter and better than they are right now."
George Rosenbaum, a retail analyst whose firm GR Research Consulting conducts surveys of consumer spending, said the 50-store addition shows developers are taking an "enlightened gamble" by delving further into the outlet business in Aurora. Consumers are still being "very cautious" about spending, but they could be ready to support more stores offering the generally lower prices outlet malls promise.
"This expansion suggests that this mall really wants to be a dominant outlet mall," Rosenbaum said. "They're gambling on putting in an expanded, competitively superior outlet mall in terms of number of stores."