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Retail changes: How area shopping centers are working to stay healthy as some big stores falter

Most of the major shopping centers in Butler and Warren counties are set to welcome more new retail and restaurant tenants this year, helping fill vacant storefronts and creating hundreds of new jobs.

The announced closing of The Gap at Liberty Center late this month comes at a time the retail giant plans to close hundred of stores nationwide.

But the $350 million mega retail shopping center is not only working with new retailers to fill the location, it’s also continuing to sign more uncommon tenants to the $350 million mega retail center, including Le Macaron, a French patisserie that opened in December, and Molly’s Cupcakes, which is set to open this month.

Liberty Center bounced back from the 2017 closings of clothing store Vengeance, gaming store Marbles: The Brain Store and clothing company The Limited, replacing them with jewelry and accessories store Claire’s, women’s fashion and streetwear apparel store Sorella Boutique and locally owned home decor-and-accessories store Burlap & Birch.

It also started construction on iFLY Indoor Skydiving, which is expected to create even more of a draw to the Butler County shopping, dining and entertainment destination.

The apparent resiliency of Liberty Center and others of its kind is evidence that the closing of big-name stores does not sound a death knell for shopping centers, according to Alex Boehnke, manager of public affairs for Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, which represents more than 7,000 retailers of all sizes across the state of Ohio.

“The so-called retail apocalypse is not coming and I don’t think ever really did come to fruition,” Boehnke said. “I actually think we’re seeing a resurgence of brick-and-mortar (storefronts).”

Some of that, he said, is mall owners getting creative, attracting smaller retailers to move into spaces vacated by larger retailers. That, along with retailers large and small altering storefronts to include less inventory and online retailers opening physical locations, has led to a retail resurgence, both on the state and local level, Boehnke said.

“I think that’s going to continue in 2019,” he said. “Certainly it’s a positive to have those vacancies filled and I think that you’re going to see strong brick-and-mortar continue to trend upward.”

Retail growth of 3 to 4 percent statewide during the holiday shopping season and “through the roof” consumer confidence portend that trend, Boehnke said.

The strategy of luring shoppers with not only big-name retailers but also smaller ones was employed last year by Cincinnati Premium Outlets in Monroe, which welcomed women’s fashion boutique Francesca’s (February), watches/bicycles/leather goods retailer Shinola (April), clothing-and-accessories store Kate Spade (June) and Taiwanese-inspired bubble tea retailer Millions of Milk Tea (July).

The shopping center, which features more than 100 retailers, will see the debut of skateboarding footwear and related action sports apparel brand Vans in February and announce another new tenant this week, one that will fill the last vacant storefront there, according to Annie Winegardner, Cincinnati Premium Outlets Director of Marketing & Business Development.

“We’ve always been very fortunate to have a lot of top, name-brand retailers at our center, which I think really helps with our brand awareness in the market, which is very attractive to stores,” Winegardner said. “We also are very fortunate that (CPO owner) Simon Properties Group invests $1 billion annual to ensure its properties are the best in the industry.”

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Bridgewater Falls in Fairfield Twp. is set to fill vacant storefronts with Burgerim (this week) and Paradigm Beauty (March), as well as Orange Theory Fitness and Carter’s later in the year, according to Matthew Chudoba, spokesman for New York-based RPT Realty, which owns and operates Bridgewater Falls.

“We are very excited to add these new retailers to the merchandising mix at Bridgewater Falls and provide our customers in-and-around Fairfield Twp. with greater selection and diversity,” Chudoba said. “These new leases help us strengthen our small shop occupancy percentage, which is a core part of our go-forward strategy.”

Voice of America Centre in West Chester Twp, the oldest of Butler County’s large-scale shopping centers, will be down to just three vacancies once Club Pilates opens early this year at 7554 Voice of America Center Drive in West Chester Twp. next to Baker Chiropractic and Velocity Lacrosse.

Warren County’s Deerfield Towne Center, which has experienced vacancies over the years, in 2018 welcomed Duck Donuts, Maplewood Kitchen and Bar, Frutta Bowls and Pet People.

Streets of West Chester, whose interior village area found itself with five vacant storefronts when retailers opted to move to Liberty Center upon its October 2015 debut, is also showing its resilience.

When ice cream parlor The Creamery shut its doors in 2018, it soon was replaced by MY SALON Suite. The shopping center this fall also put into place the final puzzle piece of its second-phase: family-owned restaurant Skally’s. The opening of that eatery closely followed the 2017 debuts of Chuy’s Tex-Mex, Matt the Miller’s Tavern, Holtman’s Donuts and Duluth Trading Company.

Nationally, occupancy rates remain high at about 93 percent, according to Shannon Troy, spokeswoman for International Council of Shopping Centers

Successful malls and shopping centers evolve to meet the needs of their specific communities, Troy said.

“This might result in the division of existing space into smaller tenants including dining and entertainment options,” she said. “We’re also seeing more grocery, gym, and healthcare offerings enter traditionally retail-based spaces. Again, this all varies by community and its unique needs.”

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