August 03, 2015

Suburban Renewal: Owners ‘Polishing the Gem’ to Make Shops of Forest Hill More Attractive

By Kevin McKenzie
– The Commercial Appeal –

In a suburban city where the median income is twice the national average, empty windows at the Shops of Forest Hill are an unusual sight.

Until a couple of years ago, a vacancy rate of 2 percent could be expected, shopping center officials said. It has since risen to an estimated 15 percent.

At Boyle Investment Co., the Memphis developers of the shopping center on Poplar east of Forest Hill-Irene Road, officials point to both global and local reasons for its vacancies.Retail sales nationally are down, and were soft even before the recent economic slump, said Cary Whitehead III, a senior vice president for Boyle’s commercial properties.

"We saw a slowdown on the horizon about three or four years ago," Whitehead said. "We basically pulled in our horns."

Boyle has built one project since then, Southcrest Market in Southaven, and is waiting for the market to stabilize and retails sales to start bouncing back, he said.

Competition for the Germantown shopping center has increased from newer retail developments — particularly The Avenue Carriage Crossing shopping center in neighboring Collierville and retail growth south of Germantown in the Winchester and Hacks Cross area.

"What you’ve had is a mild increase in dollars (to spend) as more houses were built and incomes rose," Whitehead said.

"But you’ve had a major increase in (retail) space," he said. "It’s been overbuilt. The dollars have been dispersed over more square footage and retailers are not doing as well."

When Boyle developed the Germantown center in the early 1990s, more spaces for small shops were in demand.

"The number of small shops in the world is less than it used to be," Whitehead said. And most of the vacant spaces at the Shops of Forest Hill are for small retailers, he said.

Target, Schnucks, Marshalls and Malco continue to occupy the larger spaces. Except for the departure of Old Navy, which relocated earlier this year from the Germantown shopping center to the new Carriage Crossing MarketPlace in Collierville, vacancies have gone up as smaller retailers have closed for various reasons, Whitehead said.

Lisa Long and her sister, Phyllis Kesner, ran Just Me and My Sister in the Shops of Forest Hill for five years until August 2007.

Long, 45, said the experience was a good one, but the store might have stayed open longer if Boyle had been more flexible in allowing a shorter term for a new lease and more competitive rent as new space was built across Forest Hill-Irene at the StoneCreek Centre developed by StoneCrest Investments.

Still, Whitehead said another, newer Boyle retail development, Gallina Centro, on Houston Levee south of Poplar in Collierville, is full except for one small building.

Refurbishing the Shops of Forest Hill, from new signs on Poplar to upgrading landscaping and adding outdoor Muzak, are part of Boyle’s plans for filling empty spaces. Adding more restaurants to boost shopper traffic is another.

"We’ve always felt this property is a gem," said Bradley Wilford, an assistant vice president handling commercial leasing for Boyle. "We’re just sort of re-polishing our gem."