Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Bringing retail back to Uptown Charlotte

Group to launch study of area's prospects

Ashley M. Gibson
Staff Writer
Charlotte Business Journal

Uptown development officials are preparing to launch an extensive retail planning and recruiting effort in center city, just as rumors of Saks Inc.'s interest in a North Tryon Street department store are sweeping the city.

While Saks officials decline comment, the potential interest from a major retailer is a key part of the discussions that Charlotte Center City Partners hopes to facilitate by backing an initiative that eventually will include hiring a full-time retail recruiter.

"On the Saks front, we are obviously interested in fully understanding their interest," says Michael Smith, CCCP president. "I think that bringing that kind of department store, a Saks or a Belk, to the center city is a natural step and the kind of partner that really helps shape a retail market."

Birmingham, Ala.- based Saks, which dropped plans last year for a south Charlotte store in a mixed-use project that has since collapsed, has shown interest in locating a store in a building at 220 N. Tryon St., (shown above) currently the home of the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, retail market sources say.

While luring a department store is high on Smith's list -- uptown has been without one since Belk left in the early 1990s -- there are more immediate needs for the area's fast-growing population.

Setting the strategy
Center City Partners will initially partner with private investors to bring in a consultant to develop a retail strategy for uptown and South End, Smith says.

"Then we will staff a position to go out and recruit from the recommended strategy," he says. "Bookstores top the list, and then home goods stores would be great, particularly with all of these residential projects coming out of the ground."

There is no set budget for the project and Smith does not know how much it will cost to complete. "Other cities have done this and found great success, such as St. Louis and Austin," he says.

Tom Flynn, economic development director for the city of Charlotte, says now is a natural time for retailers to renew interest in uptown.

"I think retail is going to come back as the residential increases because it serves more than just the people working there from 9 to 5," he says.

About 10,000 residents live uptown, but that number is expected to increase to 15,000 over the next five years, says Chris Jeltrup, a senior associate at local real estate consulting firm Warren & Associates.

In addition, more than 65,000 people are employed uptown, he says. "I think we are ripe for service-oriented retail to continue to come back," Jeltrup says. "Bringing Saks to uptown would likely put uptown Charlotte on the radar screen for every other national retailer."

It's also a national trend that retailers are moving into urban environments, according to the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers. "There has been a push over the past couple of years from both the public and private to bring that kind of retail back downtown," says Patrice Duker, ICSC spokeswoman. "Especially on the public side of the equation, to regenerate downtowns to make them the places they once were."

Uptown already has several small pockets of service-oriented retailers and restaurants secreted away in the Overstreet Mall and in Bank of America Corp.'s Founders Hall. And national retailers have been edging closer, with Target Corp. and a Home Depot design center planned for the redevelopment of Midtown Square. Office Depot has opened in South End, and Lowe's Cos. Inc. will soon open a prototype urban store there.

Grubb Properties' Elizabeth Avenue redevelopment is drawing retailers such as Whole Foods Market, a movie theater and restaurants.

Last year, Matthews-based Harris Teeter Inc. opened uptown's second grocery store at 325 W. Sixth St., joining Reid's Fine Foods on Seventh Street.

Uptown used to be the only place to shop, says John M. Belk, Belk Inc. chairman emeritus. In its heyday, Belk, Ivey's and Montaldo's reigned supreme.

Belk believes the economy will eventually bring big retailers back to the heart of the city, but it won't be as quickly many hope.

"It takes a while for people to come back -- I think it's about 20 years off," he says. "We are going to wait."

Moving the Mint
In the meantime, several key events have to take place before any retailer, even Saks, could consider moving into the building at 220 N. Tryon St., says Phil Kline, Mint Museum executive director.

For one thing, the Mint still owns and occupies the building, although it is looking to sell it and move the Mint Museum of Craft + Design into the proposed cultural campus project on South Tryon Street. The new Mint would part of a Wachovia Corp. development that will include an office tower, condo development, a park, a 1,200-seat theater and museums.

"We have had the most preliminary discussions with Bank of America, and they have expressed a willingness to purchase the building," Kline says. "It opens a new possibility that we didn't have before."

BofA, which spent $10.5 million to renovate and donate the building at 220 N. Tryon St., would buy it back.

"The bank has had a longstanding commitment to support Charlotte's development needs, and we played an instrumental role in helping create a retail presence uptown," says Terry Francisco, BofA spokesman.

He declines to discuss any interest Saks has shown in the North Tryon building.

In the meantime, Smith of Center City Partners says the organization has just begun its journey to bring retail back to uptown. "We've got a rich history of retail in the Center City," he says. "These models are being proven out in other cities across the country. Hopefully, regional and national chains will find this market attractive."

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