Capital Gains: Check out Austin-area shopping center's $16M facelift; Did Amazon.com consider buying Whole Foods?

Each week on page 3 of the Austin Business Journal's weekly edition we publish our Capital Gains column — tid-bits of news, talk and speculation.

Here's what we saw this week...

NORTH VS SOUTH: GALLERIA FIRES BACK IN RETAIL WARS

Hill Country Galleria, the 1.3 million-square-foot shopping center in Bee Cave, recently received a $16 million facelift. The landscaping upgrades, entertainment area within a central plaza, splash pad and outdoor seating officially debuted April 8. Investing more money in Hill Country Galleria is probably essential now that The Domain is delivering the Domain Northside retail district, which is likely pulling away many shoppers in western Travis County with a host of tenants completely new to Austin. The competition for retail dollars is particularly strong now with Austin-based Endeavor Real Estate Group giving Simon Property Group — the Indiana-based retail giant — a run for the money. Hill County Galleria, meanwhile, is owned by a fund operated by Invesco Real Estate on behalf of the California State Teachers Retirement System. The shopping district includes Dillard’s, Barnes & Noble, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Whole Foods Market, along with other smaller stores. An H&M store — the popular Swedish apparel retailer — opened its second Austin location there. Still, it will take a strong leasing and property management team for the outdoor shopping district to compete. Fortunately for Hill Country Galleria, a real estate titan is in charge of both. CBRE Group Inc. has the assignment and also handled the project management for the new renovations.

— Jan Buchholz, @ABJBuchholz

FEDS: DREAM VACATION FINANCED BY PONZI SCHEME

A Hawaiian wedding trip worth $247,415 was part of the evidence brought by the U.S. Department of Justice this month in an Austin Ponzi scheme case. Robert Allen Helms and Janniece Kaelin, Austin business partners who sold themselves as oil and gas financiers, pleaded guilty April 11 in federal court to scamming investors out of as much as $20 million. Helms, 52, and Kaelin, 54, face possible prison time, plus restitution for victims. They are out on bond with sentencing set for June 28.

From January 2010 to December 2013, the two used money raised for energy ventures to instead take care of personal expenses, including the Hawaiian trip, the Justice Department said. A federal receiver said Helms and Kaelin raised more than $30 million through their Ponzi scheme but the actual amount they took from investors is unknown. Prosecutors said it was between $8 million and $20 million while lawyers for the business partners contend it was much lower, the Austin American-Statesman reported. The final determination will be made in the coming months.

— Will Anderson, @MyABJ

ALEXA, HOW MUCH DOES WHOLE FOODS COST?

With a highly recognizable brand and strong financials despite slipping sales, Whole Foods Market Inc. would be a prime takeover target.

Among the companies who have considered a buyout: Amazon.com Inc., according to Bloomberg. The Seattle-based e-commerce giant toyed with the idea last fall but never developed a fleshed-out plan, the website reports.

The deal could have boosted Amazon’s long-held grocery plans — including permits filed to open drive-up grocery stores in its hometown.

Activist hedge fund Jana Partners LLC recently disclosed a nearly 9 percent stake in Austin-based Whole Foods and is pushing for major changes, including a potential sale.

— Will Anderson, @MyABJ

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