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Retailers' Return?

Predictions Vary.

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So when will retail rise again?

That depends, says Woodward, pondering the question just last week as he wooed retailers (he wouldn't say which ones) at the mammoth International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas. He predicts it will take two or three years to get basic retail — chain restaurants and "sundry" stores such as CVS — to arrive near Richmond's convention center, now that the Community Development Authority bonds necessary for construction will close in a few weeks.

As for a community of specialty, or "destination" retail, Woodward says, "I don't foresee that in the near future." But there are a few representatives of that niche, he says, pointing to recent fashion and design arrivals Poesis at First and Main streets and Starch at 105 E. Main St.

Brian Glass, senior vice president of Grubb & Ellis/Harrison & Bates, predicts that it will take two to five years "to get to a point where people can see a real difference" downtown. The pioneers, the convenience stores and the little shops catering to the estimated 6,000 people living downtown, already have begun to appear, Glass says. But that's only the first phase.

Many Richmonders still believe they'll see the return of large department stores, like Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers in their glory days, says Bill Baxter, president and CEO of the Richmond Retail Merchants Association. But that's not what will happen, at least not anytime soon; Baxter predicts "a window of at least 10 years before something like that will happen."

Baxter's prediction for the real return of retail is 2007 — a year when Jamestown's 400th anniversary will likely bring hordes of tourists. He foresees a community of local specialty retailers and scaled-down versions of national chains (a trend becoming more popular with retailers that have maxed out the big-box, mega-store market).

That growth won't happen, he says, until merchants have confidence in the market potential created by the convention center and future projects. Baxter quotes a peculiar proverb: "The retailers will drink the water if it's there, but they won't dig the well." But if they're smart they'll start moving in soon, he says. "There is a market downtown, gang." — Melissa Scott Sinclair

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