New Orleans is beginning to attract national retailers

The Times-Picayune – For months of speculation that the shopping club Costco Wholesale Corp. would come to New Orleans, the city officially announced the retailer’s plans to open at the former Carrollton Shopping Center in 2013. On Wednesday, the New Orleans Business Alliance and the Downtown Development District announced that Major League Baseball hat retailer New Era Cap Co. Inc. will open a flagship store on Canal Street before the 2013 Super Bowl, adding New Orleans to an impressive list of cities around the globe.

After years of begging retailers to come to New Orleans, the city’s fortunes suddenly appear to be turning. Next year’s Super Bowl and the anticipated 2015 opening of University Medical Center are creating incentives for retailers to get in and get settled. The reopening of the Hyatt and construction along the Loyola Avenue corridor are proof that the city has been able to garner investment. And more apartments downtown and the return of tourism has put more bodies downtown.

“It’s getting easier. People can come here and see the results for themselves,” said Matt Schwartz, a principal in the Domain Cos., which is working on a mixed residential-retail development downtown called South Market District. Schwartz hopes to announce the retail line-up for his project by the end of the summer and complete the financing by the end of the year.

In May, representatives of Schwartz’s company, real estate leasing and development companies such as Corporate Realty and Stirling Properties, and development agencies such as the Downtown Development District and the New Orleans Business Alliance all trekked to Las Vegas for the International Council of Shopping Centers’ global real estate convention.

For the first time, New Orleans had its own booth at the event. Rod Miller, chief executive of the New Orleans Business Alliance, which lists retail attraction as part of its mission, said that having the booth helped give credibility to their efforts, and demonstrated that the public and private sectors are working together.

“I think historically, people did not have a clear understanding of the right contact,” Miller said. “What I found is that some of them had been interested in New Orleans for a while, but they didn’t know how to navigate New Orleans.”

The city met with some existing prospects, drummed up a few new leads, and expects several site visits to result from their efforts at the convention. Miller said that’s important because if people haven’t seen the city since Hurricane Katrina, particularly in the past few years, they’re unlikely to believe that it’s doing well and is worth their business consideration.

Kurt Weigle, president and chief executive of the Downtown Development District, said his people came back from ICSC with an appreciation that New Orleans is finally on the retail map. “The most important information that I received is that there has been a sea change in the perception of the New Orleans market. It used to be that downtown New Orleans wasn’t on anybody’s list. Now it’s the buzz,” Weigle said.

The Costco announcement immediately before the trip gave a lift to their efforts, and they believe that New Era will help, too.

Miller said that the announcements by two quality international retailers will prompt others to take a look. “They’re a leading international retailer. What do they know that I don’t know?” he said.

Weigle said that New Era will help Canal Street. The company builds beautiful stores, and it plans to lift the facade and re-do the building at 838 Canal St., near the corner of Baronne. “We not only get a great retailer, but we get a building brought back to its former glory. It’s a lot of small pieces like that that add up to a big win for us,” Weigle said.

Although Costco and New Era saw opportunity in the city, the fact that the city is “under-retailed” doesn’t always work in its favor. Even when the city’s demographics fit the bill, some retailers get nervous when they learn that their competitors aren’t there, either. The dearth of national retailers in the city also raises the red flag that perhaps it means the city is hostile to outsiders.

Miller said the New Orleans Business Alliance tries to sell the opportunity that will exist for any company that comes here, and let companies know that while New Orleans loves its small independent retailers, it also wants and needs national competitors.

Real estate brokers say that public support and planning efforts make a difference in whether New Orleans can attract retailers.

Commercial real estate broker Don Randon says that it helps when the city works with retailers who are coming to the city and keeps any potential opposition in check by remembering that protests often come from a vocal minority.

Schaeffer Mickal, a commercial real estate broker with Latter & Blum, said that right now, it’s hard to find any open retail spaces along Canal Street and in the French Quarter. In addition, it can be difficult to lure national retailers because sometimes high-volume local retailers in a touristy area are willing to pay more in rent.

By: Rebecca Mowbray