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A panel discussion in Roanoke focuses on the obstacles the region faces in attracting big-name stores.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
The biggest challenge in attracting major retailers to the Roanoke region is the availability of developable land, but other factors affecting retail growth, such as the area’s population density, income and employment, can be overcome.
That was the consensus among five panelists at Wednesday’s Executive Discussion Series co-sponsored by The Roanoke Times and Cox Business at Hotel Roanoke.
The discussion centered upon the future of retail in Roanoke, specifically why the region can’t attract some major retailers.
But the biggest news came at the end, when panelist Bob Copty, senior vice president of Thalhimer, a commercial real estate company, closed with a cliffhanger.
“Looking into my crystal ball, I do believe we will get a Trader Joe’s in the next 24 months,” he said, without elaborating.
Trader Joe’s, the California-based, privately held upscale speciality grocery chain, has long been on the retail wish-list of Roanoke Valley shoppers.
Earlier, Copty said the region’s topography makes developing land expensive, and most big name retailers need large plots of land that simply don’t exist.
“I don’t care how much you beg them, they just won’t come,” he said.
Funding for developments isn’t a problem, Copty said.
But the cost of developing mountainous land in the region is prohibitive, said panelist Lewis Jamison, the developer and owner of the Shoppes at West Village in southwest Roanoke County. The cost of developing a site directly affects the cost of rent.
“How much do I have to charge for rent?” he asked.
Another factor is that retailers have very specific site and building requirements, which might keep them from taking advantage of empty buildings, such as Ivy Market or Keagy Village.
Yet another challenge is overcoming the region’s population and average income, which is something retailers look at when deciding which markets to enter.
Every retailer has its own requirements, but Roanoke typically falls short in both factors, Copty said.
That can be helped by driving more economic development in the region to create good-paying jobs, which in turn give consumers disposable income.
The region has some unique qualities in its favor that might help attract big-name retailers.
Retailers who have come to the area within the past year, such as Chipotle, have exceeded their expectations, and word is getting out, said Lisa Soltis, economic development specialist with Roanoke.
Panelist Larry Davidson, owner of Davidsons Clothing for Men, agreed.
“I think in the next few years Roanoke has a good opportunity to tell its story,” he said. The region has made a good effort to brand itself and is attracting more attention, particularly as an outdoors destination.
Panelist Melissa Palmer, co-owner of Chocolate Paper, said shoppers from outside Roanoke come for hiking or kayaking, but they also want somewhere urban to eat and shop.
“It’s all circular,” she said.
Opportunities to attract big-name retailers exist at two new developments in Roanoke. The Bridges project on South Jefferson Street aims to bring a mix of restaurants, retail, apartments and office space. No announcements have been made regarding signed leases for restaurants or retailers at that project. The Evans Springs project, across Interstate 581 from Valley View Mall, is being looked at for development as a lifestyle center, Soltis said.
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