Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Downtown has head start in lifestyle game

Last winter, I visited the Mall of America. This is the mega-shop-arama in suburban Minneapolis that attracts more visitors annually than Disney World, Graceland and the Grand Canyon combined.

Mall promoters claim that if a shopper browsed for 10 minutes at every store it would take more than 86 hours to complete the visit. This assumes the shopper has a bladder the size of Lake Michigan and that he or she would not take time out to eat at one of the 60 restaurants or squander browsing time on one of the 14 movies, the Camp Snoopy roller coaster or the 1.2-million-gallon aquarium.

I would like to go back there about as much as I would like to purchase a time-share in the eighth ring of hell. It was noisy, confusing; and I trudged for miles from my free parking space, mostly lost. Although, on the plus side, it was Minnesota in December and - just as Dante described the inferno - it was warm inside.

Meanwhile, my sensible fellow Cincinnatians were darting merrily in and out of the weather at the Rookwoods in Norwood. They did not need a roof over their heads to spend money. They may have had to troll the lot for a few minutes to find an empty space, but when they did, it was within sight of the quarry - a purse, some jeans, dishes or linens. They were experiencing a "lifestyle center."

Some of them used to shop at Kenwood or Crestview Hills and before that on Fourth Street in downtown Cincinnati. Maybe they had a brief fling with a strip mall somewhere. But nearly 50 years after the nation's first enclosed shopping center opened, shoppers are flocking back to nicely landscaped open-air clusters of specialty shops.

"People can just dash from their car into the store," says Arn Bortz of Towne Properties. "The ones in Norwood have been so successful because Jeff Anderson has done a terrific job of signing up good tenants. That's key."

Anderson now is looking across the river to the Crestview Hills Mall, saying last week he'd like to open a 500,000-square-foot lifestyle center by the summer of 2005. He'd go after tenants like Galyan's sporting goods, Lord & Taylor, Talbots, Eddie Bauer and Ann Taylor.

Once the developer signs up tony shops, the merchants have the chance to reinforce their own identity, displaying their wares in the windows. "It give an illusion of old Main Street," a speaker said at a convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers. So what about the actual old Main Street? Or at least old Fourth Street.

The new Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) is poised to hire a retail development manager for downtown. "What we need is a firm that already has a strong relationship with out-of-town retailers," Bortz says. Somebody who can pick up the phone and get a decision-maker. Tell him we already have a Saks and Brooks Brothers and Tiffany.

Pretty classy neighbors.

"We have a strong foundation for success," says Bortz, whose company has been a player in downtown development since the 1960s.

The image of label-conscious shoppers, heavily armed with Visas and MasterCards, willing to walk outside in the snow and rain looking for something special in a cute but fake Main Street should be powerful incentive for Cincinnati.

Which has a chance to provide the real thing.


E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

Pulfer: Downtown has head start in lifestyle game
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