New tenants are slated to fill long-empty windows in two major city shopping centers over the summer, and there is active interest in filling a third.
Teresa Lipham is opening a Sears Hometown Store franchise in a location at Jacksonville Crossing — more commonly known as the old Walmart — that has been vacant for years.
The new 7,000-square-foot showroom will feature appliances, lawn and garden supplies, fitness equipment, tools and electronics, but no clothing. Lipham said she hopes to have the store open by mid-July.
Alabama-based Factory Connection is aiming to have its new location in Pelham Plaza, between Hibbett Sports and Burke’s Outlet, open prior to the back-to-school rush — sometime between late July and early August.
Gaylan Hamilton, real estate director for Factory Connection, said Jacksonville is just the sort of town his company looks for in a market area. “We like smaller towns,” he said. “It gives us greater name recognition, plus the competition level is much less than in other places.”
Lipham said that in the search for a location for her Sears Hometown Store, Jacksonville “seemed to be a growing market, so we wanted to be a part of it.”
Nancy Dennis, spokeswoman for the Alabama Retail Association, said business is picking up statewide.
“Anecdotally, there seems to be new businesses coming in all over the place,” she said. “Retail sales in Alabama have been improving pretty steadily over the past 24 months. It seems that Alabama consumers are out doing more shopping.”
Numbers from the Alabama Department of Revenue back up Dennis’ claim, showing that in each of the past 24 months, sales tax collections have increased over the same month in the previous year.
In April, the state collected $178.2 million in sales tax, up 5.77 percent from last year and 7.92 percent from April 2010. The state hasn’t seen a decrease from the previous year since it fell 3.59 percent in February 2010.
Jacksonville has been very receptive and welcoming, said Lipham. “We really like that hometown feel.”
What’s good for Lipham and her store is good for the city. Every time a new store moves into town, Mayor Johnny Smith said, there is potential to expand the city’s primary revenue source: sales tax. These openings come at a critical time for the city, with officials having only months ago approved a 1-cent sales tax to boost revenue and now in the midst of planning for a new public safety complex and potential school construction.
“We’ve really been fortunate over the last year to have so many businesses come in,” Smith said. “Hopefully that will continue.”
Hamilton said Factory Connection’s mission is to provide customers name-brand merchandise at a very competitive price without having to go out of town. “They can spend their money locally,” he said
“I think it is a big deal in this economic climate,” the mayor said of the new stores. “It’s encouraging, I think, to see the folks willing to spend money to open businesses.”
Dennis said the steady increase in consumer spending could be one of the reasons retailers are coming back to shopping centers, a move that could have a positive effect for the city and for stores already established. New stores in Jacksonville could help the city’s tax base beyond just providing a new revenue stream.
The nature of shopping, she said, is such that shoppers go out for one thing but then stop at other nearby stores once they’re out. “It can’t but help other retailers when other spots in a shopping center are filled.”
At a work session last month, council members discussed offering incentives to new businesses opening in the city after the mayor received an inquiry about sales tax sharing for a potential tenant in the Winn-Dixie shopping center. City officials said they were unaware of what type of business was interested in the space and thus are not sure whether the city would consider such a proposal.
“We’re not going to do it for another restaurant to compete against restaurants that are already there,” said Councilman Mark Jones. “If it’s a completely new industry it would be something to consider.”
Jason Stinson — managing member of RIA Jacksonville Properties, the company that owns and manages the shops adjacent to Winn-Dixie — said there is definitely interest in the space but would not say by whom.
“We’re working with some tenants,” he said. “Typically we keep it confidential until everything is signed and sealed.”
Star staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.