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Oakland County launches retail attraction and retention plan

Oakland County, home to one of the most sought-after retail corridors in the country, has launched a retail attraction and retention campaign to bolster interest in select downtowns.

The initiative, the first of its kind for the county, comes as efforts to woo retailers to downtown Detroit continue, led by Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock LLC, Olympia Development for District Detroit, Midtown Detroit and others.

It’s focused on drawing destination retail to 13 downtowns or historic corridors in Oakland County that are the furthest along in adopting the tenets of the Oakland County Main Street development program, making them most attractive to retailers.

The county launched the retail effort late this summer, tapping Cindy Ciura, principal of CC Consulting in Bloomfield Hills, who’s worked on retail attraction for Somerset Collection, Campus Martius in Detroit and The District Detroit, to help bring new retail to the downtowns.

Occupancy in those downtowns isn’t an issue, said John Bry, principal planner and Main Street coordinator for Oakland County.

“But you don’t want to wait until there are vacancies,” he said. “You want to keep it full … to be proactive in continuing to promote the communities as good places to open.”

Downtown Royal Oak, which is participating and has a 95 percent occupancy rate, is attractive for new restaurants and office space. But retail is under a little pressure, said Downtown Manager Sean Kammer.

As the economy improves, rents in downtown areas are continuing to go up, and some retailers struggle with paying higher rents, Ciura said.

“If you don’t make a concerted effort to retain your retail, a city could have a tendency to have much more office or service like hair salons,” and decreased foot traffic downtown, she said.

Among those participating in the county-led retail effort are Berkley, Farmington, Ferndale, Franklin, Holly, Lake Orion, Pontiac, Rochester and Royal Oak.

Those downtowns are in the midst of or have completed things like streetscaping, facade and signage improvements and public space upgrades such as parks and trails, Bry said. They are actively marketing through window displays and promoting downtown events through social media. Those things tend to make them more attractive to retailers.

“They really all have a full plate of what they’re doing and could use some help in attraction and retention,” Bry said.

Some of the municipalities aren’t sure where to look for potential new retailers or even what information retailers might want to hear, he said. The county is compiling information, largely from U.S. Census data, on things like population and income levels, household size and median incomes, along with other notable numbers such as the size of the crowds annual festivals and downtown anchors attract. And it’s connecting municipalities to retailers and developers through Ciura.

Community leaders, business and property owners of the 13 Oakland County downtowns say they and the residents they talk to want a mix of niche, national retail with independent retailers and mom-and-pop stores in their downtowns, Bry said.

To get the attention of those retailers, Ciura is marketing available spots to those already looking at the market and others interested in urban spaces around the country. Roughly a month into the effort, she is meeting with downtowns to gauge their needs, local brokers for available properties and national brokers and the retailers they represent. They range from apparel, accessories and shoe stores to health and furniture retailers that are looking for urban locations with residential and office components that bring built-in customer bases.

“We’re going after some online companies that are now looking for brick-and-mortar locations, and there are some amazing concepts coming from overseas to our country,” Ciura said, along with retailers on the coasts in New York and Los Angeles that are starting to look at the Midwest.

“If Oakland County weren’t progressive in (its) thinking, these opportunities that are cropping up … wouldn’t be looking at the county.”

Downtowns looking to step up

Royal Oak has a downtown occupancy of about 95 percent, Kammer said, following the closure of businesses including Andiamo Trattoria in July, B Spot (which also pulled out of the Village at Rochester Hills) in late August and Blackfinn Ameripub last fall. Bar Louie is set to take the Blackfinn location on Main Street but hasn’t yet moved in.

“We think having access to a retail recruiter through Oakland County might help increase the visibility of some of these sights,” Kammer said.

Attracting more retail to Royal Oak will add resiliency to the downtown, protecting it from hiccups in the market such as fads tied to certain types of restaurants, he said.

“Any retail that we can attract that is a destination … is something we want to have. It helps with foot traffic.”

Royal Oak has more than doubled its office objectives. “Now it’s time to accomplish our retail objective,” said Gary Baglio, president of the Royal Oak Association of Retailers and owner of Five15 Media, Mojo, and More.

“With Detroit coming online, it’s definitely a great thing for all of us, including the suburbs.”

Other participating communities, like Farmington, are looking for new retail and a developer to restore or renovate downtown spaces.

Farmington has about 95 percent occupancy and a good mix of retail in its historic building stock, with some independent merchants and four new restaurants opening in the next few months, said Kate Knight, executive director of the downtown development authority.

However, the city has several vacancies in the heart of its downtown at the historic Farmington Savings Bank site, known as the Village Mall. The mall itself is also currently on the market, she said.

Its participation in the county’s retail attraction campaign already has brought the city a motivated, out-of-state developer who specializes in renovating or restoring historic properties as mixed-use, boutique urban projects.

“They came to town looking at Midtown, Eastern Market (in Detroit), and they loved downtown Farmington,” Knight said.

Prior to working with Ciura and the county, Farmington had gotten some low-level interest in the Village Mall property, but no action, she said. Over the last week, it’s gotten a flurry of activity with the out-of-state developer and two other local developers submitting offers.

The asking price for the Village Mall property is $2.95 million, said Scott Elliott, senior managing director of Newmark Knight Frank. The mall consists of three connected buildings and one free-standing building, totaling 30,323 square feet retail, office and apartment space.

The vacancies in downtown Farmington are largely independently owned, smaller spaces in unique, older buildings, Knight said, not white-box space a tenant can come in and customize. “It’s not as easy as recruiting a large, national retailer, nor are we seeking that.”

Ciura is also bringing the city connections with smaller national retailers looking for historic downtown presence, Knight said.

Even communities that aren’t part of the county’s retail attraction and retention effort are looking at it.

Birmingham, which does its own retail attraction through the Birmingham Shopping District and has 96 percent occupancy downtown, isn’t currently a “Select” member of the county’s Main Street program, so it’s not eligible to participate in the retail effort. But it plans to inquire about both to see what they entail, said Ingrid Tighe, executive director of the Birmingham Shopping District.

“We look at it as we want to do everything we can to promote downtown Birmingham. If this is an additional way to augment our current strategy, it’s something we’re willing to look into and consider,” she said.

Regardless of whether Birmingham participates at the highest level of the Oakland County Main Street program, or not, the county’s effort with a retail consultant is a step in the right direction, she said.

There are still some retailers and consultants around the country that aren’t familiar with the Metro Detroit market and don’t understand the difference between a Somerset and some of the municipalities, Tighe said.

“Anything you’re doing to promote Oakland County and our municipalities on a national level to bring awareness to retailers is a positive thing.”

Region full of options

Oakland County and its municipalities all see it as a plus that downtown Detroit is finding its way back, and that at the same time, places like downtown Royal Oak and Ferndale are continuing to rise, Bry said. That gives consumers options.

“If we’re doing well in Oakland County, the communities around that are going to feel that as well and have a ripple effect,” Bry said.

In Ferndale, for example, a mini commercial district that’s developing along Livernois is drawing small, independent retailers. Shoppers interested in that retail are likely to be drawn to the nearby “Avenue of Fashion” at Seven Mile and Livernois in Detroit, he said.

“Shoppers are going for the experience in what all of those adjacent nearby areas have to offer. They’re all playing off each other.”

Development in Ferndale could also help increase property values and small business development in the adjacent areas of Detroit, Bry said, as people and small businesses priced out of Ferndale consider nearby property in Detroit.

It’s the same thing with downtown Detroit and the suburbs, Bry said. People living, working and staying in Detroit may visit suburban shopping districts as they look for more unique shopping experiences, he said.

“When we’re marketing the region to potential employers and talent, having that diversity and uniqueness of all these great retail destinations … is a massive selling tool for the entire region,” he said.

Retailers like restaurant and craft beer bar HopCat can sustain multiple locations in places like Royal Oak and Detroit’s Midtown, Bry said.

But the overall goal is to bring new retail to the region, Bry said.

“When we can actually start having gains everywhere, that’s true economic development,” he said.

Delivering unique, one-of-a-kind retail experiences is what today’s consumer expects, said Jennifer Skiba, vice president of leasing at Bedrock Real Estate, which has been working the past several years to bring retail to downtown Detroit.

“Every community in Metro Detroit is answering this demand by cultivating local talent and recruiting new concepts and businesses to the entire region,” she said in an emailed statement.

“As downtown and the surrounding areas continue to grow, in many cases we see both local and global brands deciding to double down and open more than one location. That sort of economic momentum is vital here and throughout Michigan.”


Posted By: Crain’s Detroit Business on September 23, 2018.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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