June 20, 2014

Minneapolis leaders tell Charlotte: Luring, keeping retail uptown will be hard

Charlotte business and political leaders have been struggling for decades with little success to create a retail shopping district uptown.

Charlotte business and political leaders have been struggling for decades with little success to create a retail shopping district uptown.

As a Charlotte Chamber-sponsored delegation wrapped up a three-day fact-finding visit to the Twin Cities, they learned from officials here that getting retail shopping uptown won’t be easy, and keeping it could be a struggle, too.

Minneapolis has far more downtown shopping options than Charlotte’s uptown. But Steve Cramer, CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said Nieman Marcus and Saks are either gone or leaving the central business district. Officials are undertaking a $50 million refurbishing to convert the spaces to new retail and offices.

Retail consultant Liz McLay said the two stores are leaving the Twin Cities, not just downtown. She and Michael Druskin, CEO of a chain of clothing stores, said uptown retail can work.

But they advised the Charlotteans to pursue smaller, unique, convenience-oriented retail outlets that fit the needs of young city-dwelling residents and uptown office workers.

McLay said downtowns should strive for a retail mix of 50 percent restaurants, 30 percent convenience-oriented stores and 20 percent clothing and fashion stores.

Charlotte Center City Partners CEO Michael Smith noted that just 8 percent of the Queen City’s uptown retail space comes from clothing, fashion and other “dry goods” stores.

He cited a recent study conducted for his group that found that Charlotte’s growing residential population uptown can support another 335,000 square feet of retail.

That study called for more ground-floor retail stores, perhaps even with existing office towers allowing their ground floors to be retrofitted to allow it.

Plans are in the works, for instance, to redesign the base of the Bank of America Plaza tower at Trade and Tryon streets to make room for a new restaurant.

Smith told the group that with more young people moving uptown, it’s increasingly hard to argue that retail stores can’t thrive there.

Progressive landlords will need to allow retail to be built into their ground floors, he said, and the city needs to find a way to support parking for uptown retailers.

“This isn’t going to happen all at once with a bond issuance,” he said. “This requires constant pressure, leaning into it.”

Closing the education gap

The group also heard a panel discuss ways to close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in education.

Minneapolis has struggled with such gaps, the superintendents of the Minneapolis and St. Paul school systems told the group.

The head of the Northside Achievement Zone, a partnership of more than 30 organizations and nine schools aimed at helping low-income children, said minority children form a significant portion of the Twin Cities’ population.

Sondra Samuels said closing the gap is critical not just for schools but also businesses.

Noting that the Twin Cities is home to Fortune 500 companies, she added: “They’re not here for our beachfront property. They’re here because we historically have had the most educated workforce.”

When some of the Charlotteans asked about teacher pay levels, a source of concern in North Carolina, the Twin Cities officials said average pay in their area was $65,000.

That drew audible gasps from the Charlotte delegation. The average teacher pay in North Carolina last year was $45,737.

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