Family-owned local retailer The Pants Store is expanding to Tuscaloosa in a project that will turn a vacant downtown building into new shops and restaurant space.

The apparel and shoe store partnered with Birmingham-based Shannon Waltchack Investment Real Estate and local commercial real estate broker John Coleman to buy the Kress building at University Boulevard and 23rd Street.

The $1.1 million purchase closed Wednesday, and now the partners plan to invest about $1 million in renovations to the 28,000-square-foot building.

Brothers Michael and John Gee, third-generation owners of The Pants Store, say they hope to have the Tuscaloosa location, their fifth, open by December.

“We’re going to follow the same concept that we’re doing here in Birmingham, a casual lifestyle store for the whole family,” Michael Gee said. “We feel like it will be a good match in Tuscaloosa.”

At 6,000 square feet, the Tuscaloosa store will be comparable in size to The Pants Store’s existing locations in Crestline and Trussville. Two other area stores — the original one in Leeds and another on Third Avenue West in Birmingham — are larger.

Student shoppers from the University of Alabama also should be a boost for the Tuscaloosa store, Gee said. But time will tell, as each location eventually takes on the personality of its customer base.

“I would think for sure we would sell more Alabama stuff, but every location changes from what I originally envision,” he said. “Not every store is exactly the same .¤.¤. We try and give the customer what they want.”

Coleman, of Graham & Co., has represented The Pants Store for about 10 years.

“We identified Tuscaloosa as a market for them to grow into,” he said.

After searching for individual locations, they found the Kress building and partnered with Shannon Waltchack to develop the larger project.

The Pants Store is taking up about 60 percent of the ground level of the Kress building, while the remainder of that floor is to be occupied by a restaurant, which will be announced in about a month, said Len Shannon, a principal for Shannon Waltchack.

The second floor will be either retail or office space, or a combination of both, Shannon said, adding that the renovation work will be done in phases.

The firm sees great potential in the Tuscaloosa market, with a strong city government and economy, as well as the growing student population, he said.

“You’ve just got a recipe for some great retail sales performances,” he said. “We think Tuscaloosa is one of the safest places to buy real estate.”

Shannon Waltchack has continued to acquire property during the market downturn, with other projects similar to the new one in Tuscaloosa.

Earlier this year, the firm completed The Hollywood, a redeveloped retail strip center at U.S. 280 and Hollywood Boulevard between Homewood and Mountain Brook.

Meanwhile, it is currently finishing work on Railroad Square, a renovated mixed-use building next to Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham.

“We think now is the right time to buy real estate, to take advantage of the down market and pick up some great trophy properties,” Shannon said.

As for The Pants Store, its last expansion came in spring 2008, when it opened the Trussville location. The roots of the business, now 61 years old, can be traced to the Gees’ grandfather, Taylor Gee, who started selling pants out of the trunk of his car. It later was run by their father, Mickey.

Like many retailers, the company saw its business fall in 2008 and 2009. And while nationwide consumer confidence is still sagging, Gee said he’s seen improvements in his customers’ outlook.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth in the last six to 12 months. We feel like people are back to spending money,” he said.

That growth has come even as a new outlet mall, The Shops of Grand River, opened in Leeds last year, a development that led some to think The Pants Store’s original location might suffer.

But Gee said the additional traffic brought into town by the mall and the nearby Bass Pro Shops, coupled with rising demand among his customers, has been good for the business.

“You’ve just got to show up every day and work,” he said. “You can’t worry about competition. You’ve just got to worry about yourself.”

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