It was 2009, and I needed a shirt.
This was shortly after I moved to Charlotte from Massachusetts, sight unseen, and settled uptown. My apartment was close enough for me to walk to the Observer, and there were plenty of places to eat and drink.
I wanted to buy a shirt one weekend afternoon. But after fruitless searching, I was dismayed to see this shopping trip would require a trip in the car to SouthPark – defeating part of the reason I had decided to move to uptown.
Chris Hemans wants to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore.
As director of retail for Charlotte Center City Partners, Hemans is leading a new effort to promote uptown’s existing shops and lure new retailers. He faces a host of obstacles: difficulty parking, a lack of large spaces for national retailers, and the perception that there’s just nowhere to shop uptown.
“It’s the one thing we hear repeatedly from all audiences that are in uptown ... The one thing we lack is shopping,” said Hemans, who was named to the post in August.
Hemans said uptown needs to counter that perception to keep growing its city core. Although residents are moving to new apartment towers and new office towers will draw more workers, many of them won’t be content if they feel there’s nowhere to buy anything besides dinner or a beer.
Retailers he has met with say they’ve been impressed with Hemans so far. He organized the first forum for uptown shop owners earlier this month so they could tell him what they need. It drew more than 20 retailers.
“We’re very excited about what’s going on,” said Susan Young, co-owner of Blis, a gift shop in Founders Hall. “It feels like everyone is on the same page now.”
Here’s how Hemans plans to take on some of the biggest obstacles to reviving retail uptown:
Finding the stores
Part of Hemans’ job is simple: letting people know where existing stores are. Center City Partners has created a map showing people where to shop uptown, and Hemans is connecting with hotel concierges so they can tell visitors where to shop on the weekend. Hemans is also looking at better signage, or “wayfinding,” to help people figure out some of uptown’s puzzles, such as how to plumb the depths of Overstreet Mall’s enclosed shopping corridors.
Teresa Farson, co-owner of the Beehive boutique at 101 S. Tryon St., said that would be a welcome change. It’s hard for visitors to find their store inside Bank of America Plaza Mall, and sometimes hotel workers tell guests there’s nowhere to shop nearby even when they’re open, she said.
“Its frustrating. When there’s an event uptown, you can look out and see hundreds of people and you can’t capture them,” she said. When out-of-towners stumble upon her, Farson said they often have the same refrain about uptown: “They say, ‘You can eat and drink yourself to death, but there’s nowhere to shop.’”
Parking, weekend hours
One reason Hemans says people frequently tell him they don’t shop uptown is they’re worried about finding a place to park. One of his priorities will be better signage and guides to show people where they can leave their car.
“We have 46,000 parking spaces,” he said. “There’s no lack of parking. It’s just making it easier for people to find spaces. That’s a challenge we have to really tackle.”
Another challenge: If people come uptown on the weekends, they’re likely to find many stores closed. Hemans said he’s looking at holding an event where retailers all agree to be open on a Saturday to help people find somewhere to shop on the weekends.
Few big blocks of space
One challenge in attracting big stores: There aren’t big blocks of space available for them to lease. “We have a lack of space especially in the prime areas any retailer would want to locate,” Hemans said. “We have like 2,000 square feet here, 3,000 there.”
As a consequence, Hemans said, he’ll focus more on attracting smaller and independent stores to uptown. Big, splashy names might be a few years away, or they’ll have to build new space, as Whole Foods is doing at Stonewall and Caldwell streets.
Mandating more retail space than zoning regulations require in new uptown buildings is a possibility, Hemans said.
“We’re looking at how do we regulate the buildings in promoting retail space where it’s appropriate,” Hemans said. He said Center City Partners is in talks with the city and Mecklenburg County.
Center City Partners has also hired an architectural design firm to figure out how to convert two bus stops into temporary retail kiosks. And the group is working with Fifth Third Bank to convert six vacant offices in the Johnston Building at 212 S. Tryon St.
Overcoming retailers’ doubts
Uptown is set to double its grocery store count in 2017 (to two) when the new Whole Foods opens. The addition of a big national name will help, but Hemans said attracting such retailers will remain a challenge.
“If you’re trying to attract a national, they want to be around other nationals,” he said. “Retailers want to be in clusters. They don’t want to be on an island.”
One way he wants to overcome such reluctance is by collecting detailed data from an ongoing survey of residents, workers and visitors uptown. Then, he can take that data to specific retailers to demonstrate demand for their goods.
Hemans has organized a set of pop-up store events for the week before holidays, where retailers will open in temporary spaces and peddle their goods. The first one was for Valentine’s Day, and others will cover Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. That gives them a chance to test the waters, and reminds people that shopping uptown is a possibility, Hemans said.
“The goal is to not only bring new retailers uptown,” he said, “but also to get people out shopping again.”
Ely writes about growth and development at charlotteobserver.com/business. Follow him on Twitter at @ESPortillo. Send him news tips and feedback at email@example.com or 704-358-5041.
Shopping uptown by the numbers
13,500: Uptown’s estimated population
15,300: Uptown’s projected population by the end of the year, as new apartments are built
2.1 million: Square feet of retail space. That’s a lot, but it’s not balanced, because of the next two numbers ...
232: Bars and clubs uptown
56: Number of shops