FORT WALTON BEACH — As a young boy in the 1960s, Jay Odom loved visiting the Fort Walton Square where he and his sister would stand amazed by the newly installed automatic doors at Delchamps Grocery.

The Fort Walton Square was once the lone shopping center in the city, according to Odom. At that time, it was home to a Sears, Book Nook and beauty salon.

"I remember me and my sister standing out there at Delchamps and we would open and close the door the whole time my mom was in there shopping," Odom said. "Sears had a candy store inside and we would get chocolate-covered peanuts."

The Fort Walton Square, Odom remembered, was a place where families could enjoy coming together, shopping and being pampered.

Never did Odom fathom the little boy once obsessed with automatic doors would grow up to be the owner of the Fort Walton Square, which he eventually renamed Uptown Station.

When Odom purchased Uptown Station in the early '90s, though, the shopping center was no longer a beautiful square buzzing with shoppers.

In 1976, Sears, one of the square's anchor stores, relocated to the newly constructed Santa Rosa Mall in Mary Esther.

The once booming Fort Walton Square fell to shambles.

"It was a ghetto," Odom said. "It was ugly. All of the landscaping was dead. I saw potential to redo and rehab it. It ended up being a 15-year project."

In those 15 years, Odom constructed new buildings, re-landscaped and added a park and playground to Uptown Station. He brought in new tenants such as Buffalo Wild Wings, Ross Dress for Less, Pet Supermarket and Party City, which are still there today.

He also developed around Uptown Station, including Zaxby's and Uptown Corners across Eglin Parkway.

"Ross is really what made the corner," Odom said. "It was doing exceptionally well. It was 97 or 98 percent full in the middle of a recession."

The Great Recession in the late 2000s forced Odom to part ways with Uptown Station and sell it to new owners. After swapping hands a few times, the shopping center was sold to its current owners in 2013.

 

Allen Gordon, current director of asset management for Uptown Station, said the shopping center has continued its upward climb and is now at 100 percent capacity.

"Uptown Station is a place where you can go, drop off your kids at the playground and go run in and get what you need," Gordon said. "I think that appeals to a lot of people. You can go and eat, do some shopping. It's convenient."

Uptown Station, according to its website, is currently home to over 60 national and specialty stores, such as Tuesday Morning, Leitz Music, Winn-Dixie Marketplace and Workout Anytime Fitness.

There are also more than 10 eateries in the center, including Thaiger Thai, McAlister's Deli, Five Guys Burger & Fries and Mary's Kitchen.

Gordon said with Uptown Station's location so close to the beach, the open concept appeals to customers. The addition of Ulta Beauty Supply and Five Below, which are currently under construction, will offer shoppers even more diversity, he said.

Karen Bell of Fort Walton Beach is just one of those shoppers pleased with what Uptown Station has become over the past decade, and is also excited for what's to come. 

Bell, who sat in the parking lot of Uptown Station last week, said she wasn't visiting the center to shop, but just to eat her lunch and listen to the laughter of children on the playground, which also contains a splash pad. 

"It's just a nice ambiance," Bell said. "This is where you can come and have your shopping, you have food, you've got desserts and all of many different varieties. You've got Baskin-Robbins, Starbucks and a yogurt place all right next to each other. If you've got a preference for something, it's here."

While Uptown Station is thriving under its new ownership, Odom said he believes his hard work is what helped make Uptown Station such a success. Because he saw what Uptown Station was as a little boy, he said he knew the potential of the shopping center.

"The new owners are operating with what I developed," Odom said. "I refinished it, added to it, did all of the landscaping and installed street lights. I designed and built the playground in front of the parking lots.

"The new owners are doing a great job running it."