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Retail in Evansville
Photo provided by Eastland Mall.

Retail, simply put, is the sale of goods and services to the end user. It can be as large as a chain department store that sells a wide variety of items, or as small as a one-person operation with a limited set of products.

While most economic development news is centered on commercial and industrial development, retail plays a vital role in the Tri-State’s economy. In Vanderburgh County alone, 12,301 people are employed in retail (according to – making the sector the second largest employer in the county. (Health care leads Vanderburgh County, with manufacturing third, after retail.) In Indiana, there are 312,508 people working in retail.

Beyond those numbers, retail is a vital part of a community. Without it, areas of a city can suffer, which is why Evansville is working hard to bring more retail to Downtown. In this feature story, we take a look at the current state of retail in Evansville, profile some of those who have made it a career, and look at what the future might hold.

Location, Location, Location

Evansville’s retail assets evolve  By Nathan Blackford

Until the Baby Boom era, Evansville’s main retail district was Downtown. Stores like Schear’s, Salms, Sears, and the Economy Store drew in shoppers from across the city. But starting in the early 1960s with the opening of Washington Square Mall, retail stores began to migrate outward from the city core.

While retail in areas like Green River Road to the east and Pearl Drive on the city’s West Side has boomed, Downtown retail has diminished. Now, officials are hoping to bring more retail back to the area. Christy Gillenwater, president and CEO of the Southwest Indiana Chamber of Commerce, says retail business plays a key role in quality of life for Tri-State residents.

Evansville officials have put a great deal of effort into reviving the city’s Downtown, with the Ford Center and planned construction of a new convention hotel and Indiana University Medical School Evansville. But Gillenwater says the area won’t ever be vibrant without new retail locations. She’d especially like to see local, unique shops.

“We have seen a great deal of retail expansion on the East Side, and I think we’re beginning to see expansion on the North Side,” says Gillenwater. “I think we’ll have opportunities in the five cultural districts, like Franklin Street and Downtown. We have great assets Downtown, but let’s keep building and see Downtown as an opportunity for retail.”

Sean Ferguson, Eastland Mall’s marketing manager, agrees. He says a vibrant town will draw more people to Evansville, thereby helping all retailers.
“We feel strongly that Downtown needs to be more vibrant and more successful,” says Ferguson. “Everybody will benefit from that eventually. The core needs to be strengthened for the East Side to be stronger, for the West Side to be stronger. We feel really confident that the medical school location (Downtown) was the best place for the city. The effect on retail will be huge.”

While local officials continue to push for the revival of retail Downtown, developers are simultaneously planning for growth elsewhere. Areas like University Parkway to the west and the planned Promenade development to the east could be the next big retail areas for the Evansville area.

“Location is a big issue for retailers,” says Gillenwater. “They have to think about what the anchor retailer or anchor asset in the area will be. Or are they looking to be an anchor? And what is the market for that kind of business.”

Retail has boomed on the West Side in places like the Creekside Stores and Pearl Drive. Similarly, it has expanded to the east around the Evansville Pavilion, Lakeside Commons to the north, and has popped up in strip malls along Burkhardt Road and recent developments have brought more stores to N. Green River Road, all the way to Lynch Road.

To the west, the University Parkway corridor has attracted attention but no development so far, while to the east the Promenade will get its first retail store later this year.

The Promenade is a project of Hirsch-Martin Development, LLC. Managing member Steve Martin, also the CEO of the Martin Group of Companies, says it has taken years to get the Promenade ready for tenants.

Martin points out that the nearby Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores are among the top selling stores in the country. That, he says, means development to the north is inevitable.

“We had a market study done, and it told us that this is the spot,” says Martin. “It is a natural evolution. The reason that it’s evolving is Interstate 164. It is easy access. Retailers are always interested in being in the right spot. And there is no doubt in our minds that this is the right spot.”

A new Academy Sports and Outdoor store is currently under construction at the Promenade’s southwest corner. A second retail site, just to the north, could start construction later this year.

“We are in the planning stages right now for an 80,000- to 100,000-square-foot shopping center north of Academy,” says Martin. “And then we’ll start later this summer on The Havens (apartments).”

The Promenade is designed to be unlike other retail locations in the Tri-State. Martin says it will also include housing, offices, and an entertainment district centered around a man-made lake. It is designed to be easy to walk through and will have stops for public transportation.

“We think it will be very, very successful,” says Martin. “There is no place like this in Evansville. It is just the idea of being able to walk down the street and window shop a little bit. And there are a lot of things that can be done around that lakefront.”

As the push to the east and west continues, Martin acknowledges that some of the Promenade’s tenants could simply be businesses that abandon other locations in Evansville to move someplace new.

“We’d like a good mix of national brands and local shops that want to be a part of it,” says Martin. “Every retailer has things they are looking for. What we’ve identified is a lot of brands that are not here. We are trying to bring in new things to Evansville. But there will be some moving around. There always is. Retailers go through cycles.”

Ferguson agrees, noting that stores move in and out of Eastland Mall all the time. Ferguson says it’s hard to know which businesses will be successful in the Evansville market. Eastland Mall, therefore, works not only to keep a wide variety of stores as well as bring in retailers that have never had a store in the Tri-State in the past.

Eastland Mall, which opened in 1981, annually brings in 10 million visitors. The mall regularly brings in customers from 25 counties. That, says Ferguson, helps other retailers all over Evansville.

While most economic development groups focus on industrial and commercial businesses, local officials acknowledge that retail plays a major role in the local economy.

Ferguson says the Evansville retail market tends to be fairly middle-of the-road, without a lot of spikes or drops that other cities see. He says Eastland Mall weathered the recent recession fairly well.

“We did not have near the number of issues that others did,” he says. “We have the typical: stores leaving, stores coming in. You’ll see spaces open up, but that’s an opportunity to get new tenants in. And we’re always 95 to 100 percent full.”

Eastland Mall officials have, in recent months, been very visible in their support of community projects like the medical school, new baseball/softball complex, and more. The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure returns to Eastland Mall in September, as well.

“Everybody benefits from stuff like that,” says Ferguson. “We’d be silly not to be supportive of key economic development things like that. We feel like we’ll benefit from that over time.”

Gillenwater says retailers have different needs, depending on the size of the store, items offered, whether they are part of national chains, and more. The chamber more often deals with local owners.

“National brands have a lot of marketing dollars lined out,” says Gillenwater. “Whereas with local independents, they rely on the community to get the word out. That can be marketing and advertising, or partnership opportunities. We have national brands who are members (of the chamber), but our penetration is higher with the independents.”

The future of retail, both in Evansville and nationally, isn’t completely clear. But Martin points out it will almost certainly have an increased online presence.

“Retail is changing. The brick and mortar retailer has to change,” says Martin. “The Internet now makes up about 10 percent of retail activity. Technology is changing fast. So who knows where retail will be five years from now.”


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