01/05/09 — Filling storefronts: Officials see some interest in Wayne County locations

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Filling storefronts: Officials see some interest in Wayne County locations

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on January 5, 2009 1:46 PM

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The front of the Memorial Commons shopping center on Wayne Memorial Drive as seen early today. Commercial real estate agencies are looking for ways to convince companies to open businesses around Goldsboro and Wayne County despite an uncertain economy.

Real estate signs peel from the darkened windows in the cluster of empty offices on Wayne Memorial Drive, while cater-corner to the suite of barren storefronts, the grassy lot set aside for a grocery store is occupied only by crows.

The Memorial Commons shopping center was supposed to bring more high-end stores in easy reach of consumers who live in the highest concentration of upper-income housing in Wayne County.

But months after construction wrapped up, the only sign of development in the shopping center is a "Coming Soon" notice posted in front of Starbucks: Pizza Hut/Wing Street and Mexican restaurant El Tapatio will open there sometime in the coming months.

Office Depot, Subway and T-Mobile are doing brisk business, but according to commercial Realtors, many companies are reluctant to expand and the empty spaces aren't likely to be filled any time soon.

Two years ago when developers broke ground on the shopping center, consumer confidence was relatively high and gasoline prices hadn't started their fever-pitch climb that peaked this summer in many places at more than $4 a gallon.

"I don't think anybody thought that we would be going through what we're going through," said Steve Hicks, executive director of the Goldsboro Chamber of Commerce.

Now it's unclear whether newly-constructed shopping centers like Memorial Commons will be home to the types of businesses developers originally envisioned, or if they will be filled with less impressive offerings.

"My personal opinion is we may see some of that, but I firmly believe if you can't attract some of the national firms that have a track record of doing this type of development, it's going to be even more difficult to attract smaller businesses," Hicks said.

At the moment, there are more than 50 offices standing empty in major shopping districts in Goldsboro.

"Obviously with the economy, people have put things on hold," said Goldsboro native Emory Croom, one of the owners of Atlantic Coast Commercial Real Estate.

ACC is handling the newly built Berkeley Promenade property on Berkeley Boulevard.

Commercial real estate agencies are experimenting with strategies to lure cautious companies. A quick count of the posterboard signs along Berkeley Boulevard, Wayne Memorial Drive and U.S. 70 West shows that they are having varied success.

ACC is offering deals on rent to encourage businesses to move into the Berkeley Promenade property, Croom said.

"We're making it pretty enticing because of the economy," he said.

Three businesses are in place in the Promenade, and a fourth is poised to move in within the next 30 to 45 days, but there are no firm plans for the remaining spaces.

The new business, a restaurant, has signed a lease and will occupy the 6,000-square-foot space on the end of the building, but Croom said he could not provide the restaurant's name.

The Minnesota-based sports bar Buffalo Wild Wings expres-sed interest last year in opening a location in the Promenade, but went no further with the effort at that time.

Ashley Furniture Home Store committed to the 40,000-square-foot anchor location in the shopping center in 2006, before construction began on the Promenade, and before the economic slide became an avalanche.

One restaurant and two other companies are eyeing the empty retail spaces in the Shoppes at Goldsboro shopping center on U.S. 70 West, though none have officially pledged to the properties.

"It's been a slow leasing year," said Art Kepes, chief officer for WRS Inc., which is handling the Shoppes properties.

Meanwhile, real estate managers for Memorial Commons are trying to find an anchoring grocery store to occupy the future 56,388-square-foot space scheduled to be built in the grassy vacant lot beside Office Depot.

They are also still looking for tenants for the smaller suite of completed offices.

"It's not a position that developers like to be in. I'm sure it's not a position retailers like to be in," said Connell Radcliffe, president of 1st Carolina Properties, the agency managing the Commons. "There's not a lot of people out there that are aggressively pursuing expansion."

The rental situation might not be as bleak as the empty offices make things seem at first glance.

Larger companies with established lines of credit are in a better position to open new locations than smaller companies that are struggling to find financing during the lending crisis.

Goldsboro might be attractive to businesses that are looking to expand, not only in spite of the difficult economy, but in part because of it, Radcliffe said.

Many North Carolina cities experienced tremendous growth over the past six or seven years, but "that growth is virtually nonexistent now," he said.

Now those companies are looking for stable markets, he said.

Unfortunately, being tied to larger companies also has a downside.

"We are experiencing some negative affects from the national economy, because a lot of national chains do business here," Hicks said.

Some existing companies are faring surprisingly well.

Restaurants are not hurting as badly as other businesses, and even the dip in their sales is starting to reverse now that gas prices have dropped, Radcliffe said.

And while many local businesses are facing economic hardships, for others, profits are up.

"Some of our local industry and local merchants are finding this a good time to do business," Hicks said. "The Chamber of Commerce is extremely active in trying to do everything possible to support these businesses."

Franklin Baking Co. is making more bread than ever, especially hamburger and hot dog buns that supply major fast food restaurants such as Chick-fil-A.

As for a higher-end grocery store at Memorial Commons, the possibility is not out of the question, Hicks said.

"The grocery chains that are interested in coming here are taking a very close look at Carlie C's to see how they perform," he said. "If they are performing well, I think they will consider that location."

And Carlie C's is performing extremely well, Hicks said.

"That is a ray of sunshine," he said.

Another ray of hope is that while newly constructed shopping centers are having difficulty, older buildings, especially old grocery stores, are being refurbished and occupied by various companies.

One Food Lion facility was converted into an Ollie's, while a Winn-Dixie was taken over by AT&T to use as a customer service center.

"That's really encouraging," Hicks said.

An old phrase of his grandfather's is especially appropriate in this situation, he said.

"He would say, 'When times are tough, we have to put our faith in God, hope for the best, prepare for the worst, work as hard as you can, and improvise,'" Hicks said. "If ever there was a time to help each other, it's now."