LAS VEGAS - At the nation's biggest annual shopping center convention this week, retailers and developers working feverishly on new store deals were offered a new option - downtown Baltimore.
A presentation on downtown's expanding retail core debuted at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference, courtesy of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. The group, which promotes the downtown area, traveled here to launch its first effort to attract national retail chains downtown.
Armed with glossy brochures, poster-size maps and renderings of seven planned retail projects that would double downtown's retail space - adding more than 1 million square feet over the next three years - the group is promoting the city as an up-and-coming shopping hub.
Interest from a few retailers, such as Gap Inc., Safeway and Starbucks, and from developers giving the area a first look was encouraging, the group's representatives said. But they see their efforts as a first step in a long process of reshaping downtown's image and building momentum, said Michele L. Whelley, Downtown Partnership's executive vice president.
The group is promoting downtown as a whole, though it highlights all seven projects planned from Baltimore's west side to east of the Inner Harbor and up North Charles Street.
Projects include hotels, stores and offices at Inner Harbor East; an entertainment district at Power Plant Live and upscale shops at Lockwood Place on East Pratt Street; restaurants at Centerplazaand neighborhood-oriented retail at Charles Plaza, both on North Charles Street, and two large projects on the city's west side that will mix apartments with tenants such as a cinema, apparel stores, coffee shops and neighborhood services.
From a booth in the convention's leasing mall, where developers show retailers and brokers their projects, Whelley, business development manager Dominic E. Wiker, and planning and urban design manager Marshall W. Snively talked up the city with passers-by.
In the first day and a half, they spent time with representatives of Safeway, Xando coffee and bar, coffee shops such as Starbucks and Caribou, restaurants and a vitamin retailer. Safeway is eyeing the Charles Plaza project, which planners hope will become a catalyst for a revitalized Charles Street retail district. Gap also will likely open a downtown store at one of the new retail projects.
"We don't control [retail] space, but we try to get retailers interested in downtown," Wiker said. "We let them know the market is here, their competitors are here, the product is here. We're not here to advise people on any project over another."
Xando, for one, came looking for advice on the best downtown spot for its second Baltimore cafe.
"All these areas have a different character," said Whelley, fresh from meeting with a restaurant's real estate representatives, who wanted information on Inner Harbor East. "People are starting to hear that it's a good market."
The group shared booth space with Williams Jackson Ewing Inc., the Baltimore-based developers of urban retail and restoration projects such as Grand Central Terminal in New York. That allowed the Downtown Partnership to highlight Baltimore and its projects alongside New York, Philadelphia and Washington, where Williams Jackson Ewing has developed projects such as Gallery Place.
All city developers should benefit from the promotion, because it highlights residential and commercial activity and shows an organized retail plan, which merchants want to see before committing to an area, said Michael J. Ewing, a partner in Williams Jackson Ewing.
"There are so few retailers compared to the '70s and '80s, and they're in high demand," Ewing said. "They want comfort and security," and therefore often tend to think only of suburban malls when approaching a market.
The Downtown Partnership hopes to change that. Its efforts during the conference were supported by the nonprofit Historic Charles Street Renaissance Corp., which is hoping to attract national chains as a way to strengthen Charles Street as a retail district.
Presenting an overall plan can help Baltimore start to catch up to other cities that have focused on promoting downtown retail, said James Rouse, the former owner of Louie's Bookstore and Cafe on Charles Street, who traveled to the conference as vice chair of Historic Charles Street.
"Downtown Baltimore is under-retailed," he said. "National retailers see a great opportunity, but they're standing back and looking at the city and seeing projects and wondering what will happen and where to go. Retailers are sheep. They want to know where the Gap is and where Borders will be."
He has been working to get national chains such as Urban Outfitters to come to Charles Street.
"It's important from a national perspective that we're here," Rouse said. "Retailers want to see that the city's backing it."