Strolling the Agora: Tenants, Landlords Begin Making Deals Again At ICSC RECON, Which Is “Better Than Expected”

This latest column of Strolling the Agora is from the June 7th, 2010 issue of SHOPPING CENTER DIGEST 
“It wasn't great, but we're all in agreement then,” said Cuthbert, “that improved retail sales and consumer confidence are behind the increased number of deals started and completed at the ICSC RECON, and that the convention was lot better than most of us expected.” He was chairing the Dinosaur Chowder and Marching Society's wrapup following the Las Vegas convention.
“The attendance was down considerably from two years ago,” said Tom Baker of Property Resources Group, “but those attending were looking at opportunities for expansion and growth… one of the better shows for actual deals and prospects.”
Mike Mallon of Mallon and Associates agreed. “I felt the activity was encouraging and that a number of retailers especially the discounters were making deals. [They] are tough but at least there is activity vs. a year ago.”
Randee Stratton said “… [it] was uplifting and positive with more developers looking for deals and tenants interest in using the opportunity for expanding into markets that were previously unattainable for them with higher rents and low vacancies.”
Chris Marabella of Marabella Commercial Finance, said he “discussed construction and permanent financing with many developer/landlords who indicated they planed to develop several Walgreen and CVS stores in the next 12 months. I found the atmosphere to be positive and I definitely see an up tick in development if we can finance their projects.”
“Many [were] working harder for fewer deals,” said Dave Osterhus, “but most agreed that we need to all focus and work on what we can control and not be dragged down by what we can't. Let's all remember our friends who are out of work and looking to get back into our industry. Buy them a cup of coffee next week and encourage them!”
“Cautious optimism is a good description,” said Darlene Murray of RCC Associates. “We are a G.C. and the meetings with our clients were positive. Projects are being planned and built. So much better than last year.”
Karen Pollard of the City of Rochester pointed to “The interest in getting new projects into the pipeline was great. A definite improvement over last year, the energy was very good. From a public sector perspective we definitely achieved our goals for the show.”
Integration Good And Bad
There was also quite a bit of discussion regarding mingling exhibitors from companies serving the industry with the landlords and tenants from the Leasing Mall, with most of it being positive.
Lesley Woodring of Synergos Technologies: “I thought the integration of the exhibitors, leasing folks, and restaurant/retailers was great for everyone. There was a lot of energy and a lot less dead zones throughout the halls.”
“I was a little worried about the integration of the exhibitors,” admitted Thomas Erb of Electric Time Co, “but it worked well. The dead space last year was depressing.”
But then, there were others, like, Pablo Torres of Triangulo las Animas: “Great activity but I didn't like the mix at the expo. It's better to have zones in order to see what you want instead of missing some spots.”

Golden Rule
There was still some resentment from tenants that many of them were required to leave the Leasing Mall to visit the dealmaking suites of Simon Property Group and Westfield at Caesars Palace. “But,” said Reasonable Ralph, “it saved them substantial money not having to pay for exhibit space, and they're big enough not to need the presence in the convention center. It's the Golden Rule: Them what has the gold makes the rules.”
The types of deals being made were not equal in all categories. “Leading the charge,” said Cuthbert, “were restaurants, discounters, value-oriented merchants, with strong indications that though consumers were opening their purses, they were price-conscious and insisting on getting good value.”
“This is not to say,” Fashion Fay pointed out, “that some of the higher-end tenants were not making deals. They were, especially in their concepts that showed flexibility and were catering to this yearning by shoppers for quality and good bang for the buck.”
She noted that some of the luxury retailers in the industry were closing stores because they were unable to satisfy this need for even their most loyal customers.
Flexibility By Landlords
The landlords, also were showing flexibility, said Designing Dan, in their leases. “But also,” he stressed, “in willingness to be innovative, splitting big boxes into multiple tenancies, changing basic requirements to accommodate specific needs of smaller operators, willing to talk to retailers for A malls they would not have considered before.”
“Yeah, but if it's for a top project with high occupancy,” said Hard-boiled Harry, “there's no way I'm gonna drop the rent, even for a short-term lease. I'm willing to negotiate, and I am making deals for less rent than two years I would have said was ridiculous. But there's a limit. Unless there's some quid pro quo for another project or two that could use a little help, no way am I going to give away space just to get a lease signed.”
A number of experienced dealmakers cited numerous examples of money beginning to flow into the industry to finance projects that had been put on back burners and now may be gearing up for openings in 2011 and 2012. “Especially,” said Financing Fred, “in the areas of acquisitions and mergers – a lot of foreign money is coming into the US, with joint ventures from Canada, Latin America, the Far East, Europe. We may think we've been hardhit in our recession, but others still say we're among the safest ports to park some substantial cash, especially for long-term investments.
“A good portion of these investments are being aimed at depressed portfolios, where cash-strapped owners are being pressured to paydown some of their mortgages that are coming to term, and for shopping centers that can be quickly renovated and expanded.”

Still Stressing Caution
This is all true to some extent, conceded Careful Carl. “However, though we may have numerous chains looking to expand into new markets, trying out new concepts, seeking to tap into a different demographic, we must still maintain a certain amount of caution. We're not out of the woods yet; there's still high unemployment, increasing national debt and a public that's increasingly more pessimistic about the future. Yeah, here in our industry there's a growing optimism, but it can turn around almost overnight.”
Part of the success of this convention, Cuthbert said, can also be attributed to a pentup demand to make deals, and a lack of new development. “Don't forget, for almost two years, there were very few new projects being built – even though some now estimate we have over 100,000 shopping centers in the country.
“Much of what we've been chewing about for the last couple of hours,” he continued, “are points that have been made time and time again over the last couple of months. Tenants want to expand and grow, and landlords want to provide them with the space they need to accomplish these goals, and it can only come about if the economy continues to improve.
“And all the parties involved are willing to compromise in some ways. It's no longer, here's the deal, take it or leave it. Though I know some landlords who think we may return to that in another year or two.”

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Strolling the Agora was a twice-monthly column discussing trends, issues of importance, and commentary on the leasing/development aspects of the shopping center/retail chain industry in the US and Canada. Called Strolling the Agora, it was a part of Shopping Center Digest, a newsletter founded in 1973 published until September 2010. The column provided expert insight into various retail focused topics. It was primarily authored by Murray Shor, Editor & Publisher as well as industry and veteran retail experts.  A smattering of archived columns are presented here for your reading “pleasure”. It's an interesting “look back” at what were current hot topics at the time with regard to shopping center/retail industry focus, development and leasing expansions and processes, retail mix, opinions and more.
About Murray Shor:
Reporting and writing on the shopping center/retail industry since the late ’60s. Began as editor at Chain Store Age, founded Shopping Center World (now Retail Traffic), Shopping Center Digest “The Locations Newsletter” in 1973, and the Directory of Major Malls in 1979. Each issue of Shopping Center Digest contained a column called Strolling the Agora which provides commentary on trends, activity, issues of concern to development and leasing in the shopping center/retail industry.
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