Saturday, August 31, 2002

Malls stake claim to suburbs

But if they build, will people shop?

By Amy Higgins,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If there were a mall closer to Anne Weinert's home, her teenage children would probably hang out there instead of traveling miles down interstates to either Tri-County or Kenwood malls.

        “This is such an up-and-coming area,” the Loveland resident said. “It would get a lot of traffic.”

        And that is exactly what a slew of developers are counting on, racing to be the first to build an upscale shopping mecca in Greater Cincinnati's northern suburbs.

        But area leaders and retail experts aren't sure anyone will win the race. Even with exploding populations and pocketbooks, Cincinnati's northern suburbs still might not be able to support what is on the drawing boards.

        The latest proposal, which became public this week, is to build on 100 acres near Paramount's Kings Island, on the north side of Ohio 741 just west of Interstate 71 within Mason's city limits.

        Columbus-based Glimcher Realty Trust has options to buy the land but declined comment on the project earlier this week. Glimcher's offices were closed Friday.Glimcher is the latest of up to seven developers looking to build in Warren or Butler counties, including: a 1.1 million-square-foot enclosed mall at I-75 and Ohio 63 in Monroe, and a 430,000-square-foot open-air center on Mason-Montgomery Road in Deerfield Township.

        In Butler County's West Chester Township, four open-air shopping centers of different sizes and configurations have been announced at Interstate 75 and Union Centre Boulevard; on Tylersville Road; at I-75 and Cincinnati Dayton Road; and at Union Centre and Muhlhauser Road.

        It's no surprise that developers are jockeying for the best retail sites in the northern suburbs because of the region's fast growth of middle- and upper-income families.

        Mason saw its population catapult 92.1 percent during the '90s to 22,016. Many of those newcomers are wealthy, too, pushing the city's median household income up an inflation-adjusted 27.9 percent to $65,968. By comparison, Hamilton County's population declined 2.4 percent, and median household income inched up just 7 percent to $40,964 during the '90s.

        Other developers see similar trends of families with fat wallets in nearby cities. Deerfield Township's median household income soared 23.8 percent to $71,800. Not surprisingly, Duke Realty Corp. and Anderson Real Estate are recruiting retailers for an upscale outdoor mall there.

        Three developers are pitching sites for malls in West Chester Township, where the population jumped 38.3 percent during the 1990s to 54,895.

        “It's location, location, location,” said John Harris, president of the Mason-Landen-Kings Chamber of Commerce. “The first one in thinks it will win the prize — but I'm not so sure that's true.”

        Indeed, Mr. Harris said there are major concerns about whether the proper infrastructure is in place and how the new projects will mesh with existing businesses. Another problem, he said, is jurisdictions not cooperating with each other on such projects.

        “I wish we could get people to get over the turfisms,” he said. “I just think we need some vision.”

        And even though the population booms in the areas are clear draws to retail developers, it may take another 10 to 20 years of growth before the crowds could support another regional mall. That wait would be even longer to support the seven projects on the table, said Stan Eichelbaum, president of retail consulting firm Marketing Developments in Cincinnati.

        “The attraction is the usual euphoric competition of who can go further out to the higher demographics,” Mr. Eichelbaum said. “But the reality is that Warren and Butler counties are not of very strong density yet.”

        These development projects are also being announced in a struggling economy, when retail companies are loath to expand. Indeed, only one of the proposed malls has a big-name store attached to it.

        “Will retailers expand to questionable areas? They are trying to do this at a time when retailers are pulling back on expansions,” he said. “The proof in the pudding is that no stores are announced.”

        Enquirer reporter Ken Alltucker contributed.



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