For five years, more than 50,000 square feet of shopping space sat empty at the White Lake Marketplace on Highland Road, a symbol of how bankruptcies and the declining interest in retail development were hitting Metro Detroit.
On Thursday, developers Gershenson Realty & Investment along with about 200 city officials, area store owners and White Lake Township residents welcomed two new anchors into a former Farmer Jack grocery store.
The redeveloped shopping center added a 28,046-square-foot Bed Bath & Beyond, which opened in June, as well as a 25,660-square-foot Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Store, which officially greeted its first customers with a ribbon-cutting and giveaways.
They join other well-known names, including a Walmart Supercenter, Home Depot, Office Max and Bath & Body Works.
Call it a retail renaissance, say industry observers and shopping center developers. Having sizable national chains boosting their presence in southeast Michigan is a good indicator U.S. companies believe the state and local economy is in a long-term recovery, said Bruce Gershenson, president and CEO of Gershenson Realty & Investment, a retail acquisition, development and management company in Farmington Hills.
“There are new, exciting things happening within the state and certainly in the Detroit Metro area with tenants finding new interest,” Gershenson said. “Michigan is the poster boy for a turnaround state. Retailers are feeling good about coming back into the market or expanding in the market.”
Customer counts have already increased since the stores opened, said John Kent, owner of the Batteries Plus store, which has been a tenant there since November 2010.
“We think it’s great for our brand awareness and getting people in the door. We’re a destination store, so we need people to remember our name when they need batteries or light bulbs,” Kent said. “These new storefronts mean more people, more recognition and more traffic for everyone here.”
This is one of three new Jo-Ann stores planned for Michigan this year, said Joe Adams, a public relations specialist for the Hudson, Ohio-based retail chain. It joins the Comstock Park store outside Grand Rapids, which opened in February, and a store in Lansing, which will open later in 2012. The chain also is renovating its Saginaw location.
“The store in White Lake will offer the community a larger assortment of the crafting, sewing, seasonal and home decor items than what they are probably used to in a much more convenient store layout,” Adams said. “Plus, this new store has a classroom to support our education and party-hosting programs.”
The improving landscape has landlords and tenants taking renewed interest in their properties as well. For example, Gershenson Realty & Investment gave White Lake Marketplace a facade face-lift, upgrading the exterior with new paint and other touches as new stores like Batteries Plus came in. Walmart renovated its traditional store into a supercenter with groceries and general merchandise.
“From Downriver all the way into the suburbs, we’re seeing a lot of new building and a lot of renovation,” said Ed Nakfoor, a Birmingham public relations and retail consultant. “A lot of landlords understand the value in investing in their properties. … There’s been some consideration given as to how to market the store to make it appealing.”
The spot had been shuttered since 2007 when Farmer Jack’s parent company, Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., closed the grocer. A&P controlled the spot until its bankruptcy in 2010.
Gershenson Realty & Investment, which owned White Lake Marketplace since 2001, regained control of the space and found the two anchors, which the company announced last summer.
“We were happy to accomplish leases with two major national tenants that have not been present at all in the White Lake area,” Gershenson said. “Both are doing extremely well as far as their sales so far and their reception from the community.”
The stage is set for possible long-term growth after a wrenching recession, he said.
“Yes, Michigan was harder hit” than the rest of the country, he said. “But the recovery has been well-planned and is one that should continue for a long time into the future. That’s something that retailers want to see — not just an immediate recovery and a slide back down again.”
Karen Dybis, Detroit News