Retail trends discussed at recent community forum

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by Mike Conroy
On November 3, Montgomery Village Foundation (MVF) hosted a retail forum to discuss national, regional and local trends in retail development and how these concepts impact potential development in the Village. A panel of retail experts spoke to the 50-plus residents at Lake Marion Community Center and answered their questions about keeping Montgomery Village relevant in the retail market.

MVF Executive Vice President (EVP) Dave Humpton opened the forum giving nod to the members of the former Transportation, Development and Public Facilities Committee, and the Retail Subcommittee whose idea it was to have community discussions regarding retail in Montgomery Village. He said this forum was the first in a series of economic and community development workshops to be held in the Village. Humpton introduced the panelists: Maureen McAvey, former Senior Fellow of the Urban Land Institute; Tom Lonergan, Director of Economic Development for the City of Gaithersburg; and Jaynie VanGilder, Retail Leasing Director for Atlantic Realty Companies (ARC), the new owner of the Village Center.

McAvey said that on a national level, the retail industry is going through an identity change. More consumers are buying goods online and the need for traditional brick and mortar stores is on the decline. For those establishments seeking a physical store, location is everything, and they will pay top dollar for a prime position. She noted that companies are relying on “big data,” or analytics about consumers’ shopping habits, to establish where they need to be in the retail market to remain successful. McAvey said that food and specialty food item retailers, as well as retailers that offer an “experience,” are the two categories seeing an increase in physical locations.

At the community level, McAvey noted that factors like density, median/disposable income, traffic and ability to maintain an online presence will attract retailers to an area. Her advice to garnering desired retailers was to negotiate and follow the current trend of making a center “walkable.”

Lonergan continued the community level discussion, saying that within the City, there are many micro markets. He noted that in Gaithersburg, retail is healthy, but constantly evolving; for example, the current job centers support the retail, especially in areas like the Kentlands. Building on McAvey’s points, he said that the 355 corridor has plenty of traffic, but not a lot of room to expand. The result of this combination is mid-market retail establishments—not high end, but useful and affordable retail accessible by local and drive-through traffic. Lonegran noted that the current retail centers complement each other and build on their strengths.

Lonegran also addressed the decline of the retail stores at Lakeforest Mall (not the anchor stores). He said that many of the leases for the interior stores are coming up, and the City is not seeking to purchase the property. In fact, he said that having the property sold at foreclosure may be an advantageous way to foster change in that area. He also said the property needs to be rezoned to accommodate the needs of today’s consumers; a lot could happen on the 100-acre site.

VanGilder gave a nod to the history of The Village Center, relating stories of when she visited the center in its hay-day. While she was surprised to see the current state of the center, she said that ARC President David Ross has outlined a great vision to bring the center to the next level. Through ARC’s unique connection with retailers, they are looking to turn this center around and make it an important hub in the middle of Montgomery Village once again.

She said that bringing an established grocery store to the Village Center is paramount on their list. “A good grocer is the key to a good neighborhood center,” VanGilder said. ARC’s plan also calls for a new façade; to right-size some of the current retailers; redo the pad sites in the parking lot of the center; fix the traffic flow by extending some of the roads through the center; and add pedestrian traffic through incorporation of residential units on the property. Her colleague Matt Copeland of CBRE added that ARC was looking to bring brands that residents wanted to the center, such as Starbucks, as well as food/fast-casual dining establishments with outdoor seating. He noted that about 90% of the current retailers in the center were expected to stay.

Questions from the audience addressed concerns and support, asking how residents can help foster change in the retail landscape, in particular at the Village Center. The panel, along with EVP Humpton, agreed that change is happening in the Village, but it takes some time. For years, the MVF Board of Directors has been planning for the future, addressing issues with aging infrastructure, and some of those plans are starting to come to fruition. VanGilder noted that the Village Center would be neighborhood-oriented, but to make it successful, ARC is addressing density and transportation hurdles on the site. Pending plan review and approvals, as well as lease timing with current stores, VanGilder estimated a fall 2017 start to some changes at the center.

For information about development in the Village, please visit www.montgomeryvillage.com; click “Development & Projects” from the “About MV” menu on the blue bar.