Cortana property owners playing hardball with Amazon proxy, potentially threatening major deal

For nearly a year, a property development firm with ties to Amazon has been trying to acquire the properties that comprise the now-shuttered Cortana Mall from their respective owners as part of a plan to redevelop the site into a 1 million-square-foot regional fulfillment and distribution center for the e-retail giant.

But while the project—which would be a huge economic development win for Baton Rouge—is not dead yet, at least one property owner is playing hardball and threatening to derail the whole deal, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

Those working directly on the deal have signed a nondisclosure agreement with the property firm, Atlanta-based Seefried Industrial Properties, precluding them from discussing the project, but two sources tell Daily Report that Dillard’s department store is the holdout.  

Two other public officials say they also have been told Dillard’s is the one property owner still refusing to sign a purchase agreement. While they do not have firsthand knowledge of the negotiations, they have been kept apprised of the progress and aren’t under a confidentiality agreement. 

“I know Dillard’s was the last big box out there they were trying to acquire,” says Metro Councilperson Donna Collins-Lewis, whose district includes the Cortana Mall site. “They were making good progress last time I heard but I haven’t heard anything since the pandemic.”

Baton Rouge North Economic Development District Executive Directory Jerry Jones has also been told that Dillard’s is holding up progress on the project, “which is not surprising,” he says. “They’re the only ones still left standing out there.”

A spokesperson with Dillard’s corporate office in Little Rock, Arkansas, says the company does not comment on real estate negotiations as a matter of policy.

Dillard’s continues to operate a popular discount store at its Cortana location, selling close-out merchandise from other Dillard’s stores, though it has been shuttered since the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders went into effect. The mall’s other four anchor tenants—Sears, Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Virginia College—have closed over the past four years, while the mall’s interior was permanently shuttered last August.

Collins-Lewis says she thought Dillard’s pandemic closure “might help things along” and hasten the company to sell the property. But that’s apparently not the case. A Dillard’s spokesperson tells Daily Report the store will reopen for business Wednesday morning.

It’s unclear how much of a threat Dillard’s negotiating position poses to the potential Amazon deal at Cortana, which Jones says would be a “huge project with tremendous implications for the parish as a whole.”

None of the other Cortana properties has changed hands so far and only one, Virginia College, is officially under contract, according to the LACDB. But sources familiar with the situation say deals have been reached on at least some of the others properties, and that Seefried will not move forward with the purchase of one property until it has signed deals on all six of them.

Regardless of what happens at Cortana, it does not appear as though it will threaten a separate project Seefried is working on in the market. That project, located near Siegen Lane, will be a 110,000-square-foot distribution center for an undisclosed user believed to be Amazon.  

Based on what Amazon has done in other markets, it appears that the facility will serve as what is known in the industry as a “last-mile” center, which handles packages in the last stage of the delivery process. 

“It would serve a different purpose than Cortana,” Jones says. “When they initially bought the Siegen property a lot of people worried the two deals were mutually exclusive, but they are not.” 

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