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Gathering gives retailers opportunity to check out Mississippi business opportunities

Retail conference on Coast notches record attendance

BILOXI – The recent International Council of Shopping Center’s (ICSC) Gulf South Alliance Program not only had record attendance, it also allowed more than 50 retailers the opportunity to consider available commercial sites along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere in Mississippi.

Brooks Holstein, program chairman for the conference and senior vice president of Stirling Properties, Biloxi, said setting an all-time attendance record for the event, co-sponsored by the economic development agencies of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, was great. He said having that many retailers in town could translate into filling some empty commercial real estate space.

“Most of those retailers had never been to our state before, much less the city of Biloxi,” Holstein said. “Hopefully we can get them to look at some of the closed stores we have throughout the Gulf Coast and the balance of the state of Mississippi. I think probably the biggest message we hope each attendee took from the convention is the major economic successes Mississippi has enjoyed over the past five to seven years, which we call the Mississippi Miracle.”

Holstein said with current retail sales in the U.S. slumping, it is even more important that retailers and developers make better development decisions.

Craig Haskins, vice president, Commercial Developers Inc., McComb, and moderator of an executive/CEO retail panel at the conference, said the meeting allowed deal makers to meet and interact. “Many shopping center developers and merchants are members and attend these conferences,” Haskins said. “It is an important way to disseminate information, share ideas, network and try to make deals. It is a chance to do business and make deals for new developments and leases, and even the sale and purchases of shopping centers can be cultivated at these meetings.”

Haskins said many people don’t realize the economic impact of retailing. When people think of economic development, they usually have in mind smokestack industries and businesses like WorldCom. “But retail is massive, and it is a clean industry,” Haskins said. “Look at what retail does: it produces sales, sales taxes are generated, it employs thousands and thousands of people, and shopping centers pay a lot of property taxes. It is a huge economic generator, and it isn’t seen as such by a lot of folks.”

During the conference participants heard opinions about real estate trends from top CEOs in the industry. Mickey Newsome, president of Hibbett Sports, a 280-store chain headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., said that to be competitive his company has concentrated on staying away from larger markets they consider overly competitive.

“We are small market operators so we can stay competitive,” Hibbett said. “In Mississippi we have stores in McComb, Tupelo, Starkville, Senatobia, Clarksdale, Batesville, Hattiesburg, Gautier, Meridian, Natchez and Vicksburg. Typically we go to small markets where we compete against local operators as opposed to national operators.”

Hibbett Sports has been on a fast-growth trend, opening 62 stores last year, 52 the year before and 53 stores the year before that. The company plans to open another 65 stores this year and is looking to negotiate with landlords who have the number one shopping center in small markets.

Conference participants also heard from T.G. Solomon, president, Gulf State Theaters, New Orleans, who spoke about the popularity of the new stadium megaplex, the large stadium-style seating movie theaters. Solomon said that these theaters can easily be considered an anchor for a shopping center.

“It used to be they wouldn’t let a theater go in a shopping center because it takes up too much parking,” Solomon said. “But these new stadium megaplexes being built today around the country are strong enough in drawing that they could anchor a strip center or maybe even a mall.”

Another speaker at the conference was Roland Weeks, president and publisher of The Sun Herald, who spoke about meeting the challenges of preserving the quality of life of the Coast during a period of rapid growth.

“The Coast is growing at a furious pace,” Weeks said. “Our cities and towns are changing rapidly and remarkable. The faces of landmark and neighbors are less familiar. Newcomers are pouring in to fill thousands of jobs. New subdivisions and shopping centers are springing up north and south of I-10 and we are becoming one community stretching from Bay St. Louis to Pascagoula.”

Weeks said change, especially rapid change, must be controlled. Without careful planning and hard work to make the growth beneficial to all citizens of the community, he sees a danger that the development will make a few people rich while the rest of the people suffer.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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