Rouse Co. tries a little draw poker in Las Vegas

A full house is a winner and odds improve with runway fashion show

May 25, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS - A runway rose from the floor and willowy models emerged wearing metallic-colored skirts and skintight evening gowns designed by 20-something designer Zac Posen.

It's the kind of show you might see on a runway in Paris or New York - and several times a day for shoppers at the Rouse Co.'s expansive Fashion Show Mall here just off the world-famous neon strip.

Rouse put on one of the shows Sunday night specifically for a crowd of retail executives in town for the annual convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers. The biggest industry gathering of the year, the retail event is expected to draw a small city's worth of executives, developers and elected officials, as many as 38,000 people.

The 80-foot runway at the Fashion Show Mall was added as part of a five-year, $1 billion expansion and renovation. Rouse transformed it from a sleepy property to one of the most-talked-about developments in the country.

The center is an example of one of the ways in which malls are reinventing themselves. Once the upstarts that altered the fortunes of Main Street America, enclosed malls themselves have lost share to new shopping concepts such as so-called "lifestyle centers."

Developers, in turn, are building fewer malls and focusing on trying to make current ones better. Of about 1,130 regional malls last year, 36 closed or were remade into other types of shopping centers, according to the retail trade association.

Ninety percent of malls are more than 10 years old, and one-third of them have expanded by at least 10 percent, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago firm that tracks consumer shopping activity.

"There has been a lot put into rejuvenating the mall and adding more ways to draw people to the mall," said Bill Martin, executive vice president of sales for ShopperTrak, in town for the convention. Malls have become more entertainment-oriented and are drawing consumers with more restaurants and leisure activities.

"Years ago, it was the department stores that were the draws to the mall," said Thomas DeRosa, Rouse vice chairman and chief financial officer, standing on the runway after the fashion show. "Now, you're seeing restaurants and movie theaters. A fashion show is a draw."

As department stores have lost some allure, malls have looked to nontraditional anchors such as the discount giant Target Corp. and Bass Pro Shop. Rouse is negotiating with Crate & Barrel to fill its last anchor spot at Fashion Show, a space that Lord & Taylor backed out of after announcing it was closing several of its stores.

The most recent threat to the mall has been the emergence of lifestyle centers, so named because they're perceived as easier for people with busy lifestyles to navigate than an enclosed mall. They also often include a section of restaurants that attract people for reasons other than shopping. After years of moving to the suburbs, retailers are also again looking at urban centers - in turn, creating more competition for regional malls.

Baltimore brought a contingent of economic development officials, developers and Mayor Martin O'Malley to Las Vegas to woo retailers to projects such as the west side redevelopment, the Charles Street corridor and the Harbor East project near the Inner Harbor.

Rebecca Gangalis of the Charles Street Development Corp. said street facade improvements and redevelopment projects have made the corridor more attractive to developers. "It's helped brighten up the area and provides a better entrM-ie for national developers," she said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state economic development officials were meeting with representatives from the May Department Stores Co. and Westfield Group, which operates shopping centers including a mall in Annapolis, to discuss retail opportunities in the state. The governor said he was specifically looking for high-end retail to move into Baltimore's west side and Prince George's County.

Retail experts insist that malls aren't in danger of extinction, but add that the ones willing and able to shift with consumer shopping tastes and habits will fare best.

"The strong ones," DeRose said, "are getting stronger at the expense of the weaker ones."

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