CLEVELAND -- Downtown Cleveland hasn't had much in the way of high-class shopping -- or much in the way of a high-class image. But developers and city officials are hoping that a train station-turned-shopping mall that opened last spring can help with both problems.

After nine different research projects and 67 focus group surveys, developers for The Avenue, Cleveland's glittering, new $105 million downtown shopping center, determined that many Clevelanders shopped regularly by catalogue or in other cities because Cleveland lacked the upscale stores they wanted. "We knew there was a good market here that no one was tapping," said Emerick Corsi, vice president of development at Forest City Enterprises Inc., developers of the 110-store Avenue. "Retailers believed us when we said we could bring dollars leaving the city back downtown."

Two expansive skylights overlook three levels of stores and shops in The Avenue, the retail component of a larger complex called Tower City Center. Located along the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the complex includes an adjacent 12-story Skylight Office Tower and Stouffer Tower City Plaza Hotel, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel and office tower, and a renovated former post office building for the M.K. Ferguson Co.

The complex also features the 52-story Terminal Tower, Cleveland's most familiar landmark, which once housed the city's main train station. The Avenue, which opened in March, is larger than either Union Station in Washington or Union Station in St. Louis, two other train depots converted into retail shopping centers.

Persuading retailers to come to Cleveland -- especially national retailers who were not familiar with the Cleveland market or had left Cleveland off their lists of possible expansion sites -- took some imagination.

"It was very difficult to get retailers to come here. Cleveland has been the butt of jokes for so many years," said Holli Birrer, a spokeswoman for The Avenue.

Once retailers visited the city and The Avenue complex, however, it was not difficult to sell them on the project, Corsi said.

"All we ever heard was that Cleveland was a dead, dirty city -- not very attractive for starting a new business. We discovered that Cleveland is not as we had heard," said Zareh Khederlarian, executive vice president of operations for the Los Angeles-based Politix men's apparel stores. Politix chose The Avenue as the site of one of its first stores outside of California.

To entice people to visit Cleveland, developers told retailers if they came to the city and did not like what they saw, The Avenue would pay for their visit.

"In our visits to Cleveland, we saw a real interest on the part of Clevelanders to make The Avenue work," said Peter Cobuzzi, advertising director of Bally of Switzerland, an upscale shoe store. "We felt there was a strong commitment to the project from a city that is on the rise."

Cobuzzi said Bally had more than 3,000 Ohio customers -- many of them in the greater Cleveland area -- who shopped by catalogue and at other Bally stores. The developer's research showed there were only 2.3 square feet of retail space in Cleveland for every household with an income of $50,000 or more, compared with 12.5 square feet in Cincinnati and 14.5 in Baltimore, said Corsi.

"There is a pocket of opportunity here," said Michael Sturges, a retail analyst and partner in the accounting firm of Laventhol & Horwath in Cleveland.

The Avenue conducted market research to determine the specific stores to target for the project, said spokeswoman Birrer.

"Most developers do research to determine what group or type of stores they want in their project, but we asked people in Cleveland what specific stores they wanted," she said. "We then went after the Guccis and Fendis, the retailers who put only one store in a major city."

The Avenue has 93 percent of its 361,000-square-foot space leased, and officials expect to fill the remaining spots by early next year. The center's tenants seem pleased with results so far.

"Our Avenue store is one of our best performers," said Chuck Champlin, spokesman for the consumer products division of the Walt Disney Co., which operates 70 Disney stores nationwide that sell Disney-related paraphernalia.

"Business has been very good for us," said Barbara Leiblinger, store manager of Gucci's. "We're seeing Gucci customers who in the past traveled to other cities to shop, and we are also converting a lot of new Gucci customers."

Retailers at The Avenue say shopping traffic is thin on weeknights but steady during the day and on weekends. At lunch time on any given day and on weekends, there's a sizable crowd milling about and lounging near The Avenue's fountains in the main open-air concourse.

The rise or fall of Tower City and The Avenue is linked to the rest of downtown Cleveland, said Michael Bogarty, director of the Center for Regional Economic Issues, a major economic research center at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University. "Certainly, Tower City cannot pull up the entire city of Cleveland or downtown. It has to be one of several centers of growth," he said.

Bogarty said other strong developments are necessary because the decline of downtown in the past was so substantial. The percentage of retail trade in the greater Cleveland area that was actually in the city dropped from 69 percent in 1947 to 30 percent in 1987, he said. Also, studies in 1987 showed that the city benefited from only 12 percent of the $17 billion in retail sales generated in northeast Ohio. Baltimore garners 20 percent of retail sales in its area, and Pittsburgh gets 19 percent.

"No one has an answer right now how much of an effort it will take to reverse the downtown's long-term decline," he said. "It's too soon to tell just what impact The Avenue and other downtown development projects will have."

Joseph Marinucci, Cleveland's director of economic development, said downtown is "on the verge" of achieving the "critical mass" of retail stores and sales necessary to spur substantial business development. "The Avenue has reacquainted a group of people to the downtown who had not shopped here in a long time," he said. "It's also bringing a new generation of younger people downtown."

Landfill Voted Down in W.Va.

Barbour County residents voted by a 2-to-1 margin to prohibit construction of a large landfill on the site of a shut-down strip mine near Philippi, W. Va., featured in last week's Regions column. The landfill would have taken solid waste from out of state.