A lot has changed in my hometown of Montgomery, Ala., since I left for college 10 years ago. Known as the “cradle of the Confederacy” and the birthplace of civil rights, the city of 350,000 had never been a hot expansion target for national retailers. But today, Montgomery is booming with new housing construction, a $1 billion Hyundai plant in the works and a host of new national retailers.
And it's high time. As the state capital, Montgomery is home to an array of high-income lawyers, government officials and state employees. The city's morphing retail scene reflects larger trends across the U.S. For example, an upstart lifestyle center is stealing tenants from venerable enclosed malls.
The city's former shopping fortress — Montgomery Mall — has two empty anchor spots and is overrun by rowdy teens and thugs who scare away upscale shoppers. Dillard's and JCPenney decamped in recent years for more profitable locations. Penney's is building a new store in Aronov Realty's Eastdale Mall on the opposite side of town. And this March, Dillard's opened a lavish new store at The Shoppes at East Chase, the lifestyle component of a huge mixed-use complex smack in the middle of Montgomery's new wealth center on the eastern outskirts of town.
Hometown developer Jim Wilson & Associates broke ground on The Shoppes at East Chase in 2002. The 435,000-square-foot lifestyle center will eventually be part of a larger, $300 million complex including apartments, office spaces, big-box stores and freestanding restaurants. Insurance company Alfa is joint venturing with Wilson on the development. Anchors include Linens N Things, Books-A-Million and a diverse mix of casual, fine dining and fast-food restaurants. Lifestyle tenants such as Ann Taylor, Williams-Sonoma and Abercrombie & Fitch have opened as well. For the first time, Montgomerians didn't have to drive to Birmingham, Ala., or Atlanta. Teen apparel store Hollister has also been a big hit with the city's well-to-do high schoolers. The city's first Starbucks will open later this year.
Designed by Birmingham, Ala.-based CMH Architects, East Chase echoes the firm's work on Cousins Properties' popular Avenue centers in Atlanta and other bigger cities. Sculptures, fountains and landscaping create a village not to be found at the enclosed Montgomery and Eastdale malls. One East Chase tenant — upscale outdoors chain Orvis — recently shut down, but Wilson has already lined up apparel chain Coldwater Creek to fill the space.
The locals love it. My parents, who live within walking distance, are frequent shoppers, though they're not fans of the gridlock caused by the high traffic volume. “I can zip over there and get just about anything I need,” my mother says.
She is especially fond of the 500,000-square-foot power center that opened last fall next to the lifestyle center. Target, PetsMart and Ross Dress For Less act as anchors. Direct competitors Pier 1 Imports and Cost Plus World Market even settled for neighboring parcels to get in on the project. Until recently, she did most of her shopping for perishables and cheap household items at Wal-Mart. Now, like her, many of the city's die-hard Wal-Mart shoppers have become Target converts.
Location: Montgomery, Ala.
Size: 935,000 sq. ft.
Owner/Developer: Jim Wilson & Associates
Major Tenants: Dillard's, Kinnucan's, Banana Republic, Gap, Chico's, Ann Taylor, Williams-Sonoma, Abercrombie & Fitch, Target, PetsMart, Cost Plus World Market