LAS VEGAS — By every measure of the annual conference of the International Council of Shopping Centers — the numbers, the size and, well, the mood — retailers and retail developers are feeling better this year than they were a year ago.
Official attendance for the conference, held in the Las Vegas Convention Center every year for more than a decade, topped 30,000 last week, up from 28,700 last year. Though the event may never return to the size it was pre-recession, organizers extended it later into the week than last year to accommodate the renewed interest.
Don Wood, president and chief executive of Rockville-based Federal Realty Investment Trust, owner of nearly 19 million square feet of outdoor shopping centers nationwide, typically has a breakneck string of back-to-back meetings at ICSC. On Tuesday afternoon, a bleary-eyed Wood loosened his tie and explained that the difference between 2010 and 2011 was that the retailers interested in and capable of expanding are now ready to put pencil to paper.
“This year it’s ‘Let’s do deals.’ It’s definitive, positive momentum,” he said. Wood himself had in recent weeks signed a preliminary lease for Richmond-based organic grocer Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market to open its first store in the Washington area in Federal Realty’s Rockville Town Square.
The effects of the resurgence were also felt at the booths operated by Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s County, two local jurisdictions considered under-retailed and led by new executives, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who hail from neighborhoods — the Hillcrest section of the District and Cheverly , respectively — that are bereft of any of the new concepts on display in Las Vegas.
Gray and Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, hosted about 90 meetings, up from about 70 that former mayor Adrian M. Fenty held last year. The Monday night reception the city held at the Encore hotel and casino drew about 620 attendance commitments this year, more than double the number last year.
Gray said his top priority was progress on plans to redevelop Skyland Shopping Center, something he made very clear to Wal-Mart officials Monday in demanding that they open a store there. Five members of the D.C. Council attended the show and were invited to sit in meetings with the mayor, which was not the case last year when relations between Fenty and the council had fractured.
“I think it demonstrated the tremendous value of the executive and the legislative branch working together,” Gray said.
Gray’s team held other meetings with Safeway, CVS, Wegmans, Kohl’s Department Stores, AMC Theatres, Under Armour and Darden Restaurant Group, operator of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Seasons 52 and other concepts.
There were newsworthy signs of progress, driven by the area’s growth in jobs and population. A Starbucks store development manager, Lizanne Kile, announced that the chain had signed a lease to open a second location in Union Station, on the station’s main floor. Armand Keurian, a regional director for 7-Eleven Inc., said he had 17 stores in the mid-Atlantic region but wanted to add another 35 in the next two years. Gray announced that Safeway, the top grocer in the District, had signed a three-year, $50,000 deal to become the title sponsor of the city’s annual Thanksgiving high school football championship, the Turkey Bowl. Wegmans officials acknowledged early interest in being part of the redevelopment of the Walter Reed Army Medical Campus, a portion of which the city is in the process of acquiring.
“It’s never been like this, not in my time,” said Steve Moore, president and chief executive of the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership, a contractor with the city that operates its Las Vegas booth. “Because before the recession, we didn’t have the reputation. So, you know, we were still out here sort of saying, ‘Let me show you some demographics that show you we’re not a bad market.’ Now all of that’s [known] ahead of us. And so now we’re sort of responding — taking stuff as it comes at us.”
Baker and his team, led by Gwen McCall, president and chief executive of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp., held meetings with nearly two dozen companies and tried to promote neighborhoods near the county’s Metro stations, particularly New Carrollton, Largo Town Center and others. He joined the Peterson Cos. to announce that Tanger Factory Outlet Centers will bring outlet shopping to National Harbor, a deal that he said he is helping to sell the community. Baker said the deal “creates jobs, gives us the type of announcement we want and one that puts Prince George’s County, once again, moving forward.”
Baker said he had been unsure whether it was worth the commitment of time and money for him personally to attend the conference. But he said after arriving that he realized quickly that it was worth his while, particularly to help the county rehab its image, which was sullied a week earlier when Baker’s predecessor, Jack Johnson, admitted in federal court that he accepted bribes from a developer. “People want to see that the person at the top of government is involved,” Baker said. Of the Johnson affair, he added, “You can tell people were aware of it.”
For conference attendees searching for their own rebirths, it may have been heartening to hear a luncheon speech from Howard Schultz, who led Starbucks as chief executive until 2000, when he stepped aside to become chairman, only to return to the position in 2008 and lead the company through a major downsizing that ultimately returned its stock to aggressive growth.
“Our backs were against the wall during the financial crisis. We were really tested,” Schultz says. When he returned as chief executive he oversaw the closure of hundreds of stores, the retraining of its stores’ employees nationwide and a meeting of all 11,000 store managers in hurricane-plundered New Orleans, where he said volunteering and re-commitment to customers returned the company to its core values.
“It’s about people,” Schultz said of Starbucks. “It’s about the humanity of the people we serve.”