Around Florida, there soon will be an answer to a question that's on the minds of retail experts nationwide: Do movie theaters bring in shoppers?

Four entertainment retail centers are being built at the same time in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. More are going up in Jacksonville, Orlando and south Florida. In many locations, the formula is the same: build a state-of-the-art movie theater complex with stadium seating, and surround it with restaurants and high-end retail. Then, hopefully, watch people come to see a movie, have dinner and shop. The challenge is to get just the right mix of retail, which requires a keen sense of what shoppers want in each location.

"There is quite a bit of overbuilding in stadium-seat movie theaters, and that's going to make it tough for some," says Beth Azor, vice president of Miami-based Terranova Corp. "I can see how some shops, like bookstores and ice cream stores, would do well. But I don't see how someone would buy clothes when they are going to go to a movie. It has to be an impulse item."

The arrival of hundreds of new movie screens around Florida is one of several trends making the industry a bit nervous, even as the nation enjoys a lengthy economic boom. While the state continues to grow, the chance always exists that interest rates will go up and the economy will slow down. And that's when the ambitious building spree of today could become the overbuilding problem of tomorrow.

Concerns about overbuilding are especially strong in assessing the future of big-box retailers in the state. For instance, North Wilkesboro, N.C.-based Lowe's is moving into Florida in a big way, building eight new stores to add to its 26. Can the chain make inroads against Atlanta-based Home Depot, which has 75 stores in the state? Builders Square has already become a casualty of the home improvement wars.

Home Depot, not surprisingly, is confident about its position in the state. "We welcome the competition," says spokeswoman Jami Buck. "It makes everyone sharper, and the customer wins out."

Much of the retail growth around the state is being driven by grocery stores that are remodeling and opening new stores. Publix, Winn-Dixie, Albertson's and Kash n' Karry (a subsidiary of Food Lion Inc.) are all opening big new stores that have more ready-to-serve items, hoping to attract shoppers who are in a hurry. Another goal is to fight off the charge of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is opening combination retail/grocery stores called supercenters around the country. Publix plans to open 31 new stores in the state this year, Winn-Dixie plans to add 19, and both Albertson's and Kash n' Karry plan 11, according to researchers in the Orlando office of Northbrook, Ill.-based Grubb & Ellis.

Among the other major players fueling Florida's retail growth are drugstore chains Eckerd and Walgreens, which are building more freestanding locations, and big-box users Borders Books, Babies 'R' Us and Target.

Total construction spending in Florida for residences, retail, office buildings and public works projects is expected to break $30 billion this year, according to First Union Capital Markets in Charlotte, N.C. Of that total, $2.8 billion will be retail-related, up 3% from 1998. With all this activity, a lot rides on a healthy economy continuing throughout the coming year.

"The good thing is that lenders are keeping controls over the building boom," says Patrick Berman, a retail specialist in the Tampa, Fla., office of New York-based Cushman & Wakefield Inc. "With smarter decision-making going in on the front end, retailers can put on the brakes quickly. It's easy to stop plans for those 10 new stores if you haven't broken ground yet."

Still, the overwhelming mood of Florida retail players is one of optimism. The state's population is consistently growing by about 1.5% a year, one of the top figures in the country, according to Regional Financial Associates, an economic research firm in West Chester, Pa. Household income is growing by almost 3% this year and is forecast to grow 2.7% next year.

And while Regional Financial projects that job growth will slow next year, to 1.4% from this year's 2.8%, that's still enough to keep the Sunshine State's economy humming.

Mark Vitner, an economist with First Union Capital Markets who studies the Florida economy, expects retail sales in the state to increase by 6.7% this year and 5.5% next year. The hottest spots in the year 2000: Miami-Fort Lauderdale, where he projects 7% growth, and West Palm Beach, projected at 6% growth. (See chart, page F3)

"The state economy will slow a bit, but it should still be good for retail," Vitner says. "Florida is one of the best states in the country for retail. All the Yankees move down there and have to buy a new wardrobe."

The state is expected to add 250,000 jobs this year and about 200,000 next year, according to First Union

That job growth - in many ways fueled by the population growth - is what drives retail, says Pat Frank of Clearwater, Fla.-based Colliers Arnold. "Just look at the grocery stores and drugstores," she says. "The grocery store business has only about a 1% margin, so growth is essential. You have to sell a lot of lettuce to make money."

Here's the outlook for the state's biggest metropolitan areas for the coming year:

Jacksonville To gauge Jacksonville's health, consider its retail vacancy rate. REIS Reports Inc., a New York-based company that tracks real estate trends, estimates Jacksonville's retail vacancy rate to average 5.7% through 2003, much lower than the national average of 6.4%. This rate is also lower than Fort Lauderdale (6.3%), Tampa Bay (6.4%) and Orlando (6.7%).

Northeast Florida's economy continues to derive much of its strength from the large military presence there, but it also is attracting large call centers to diversify. Meanwhile, the St. Augustine area continues to grow as a tourist mecca. Two projects new to the St. Augustine area are Belz Factory Outlet World developed by Memphis, Tenn.-based Belz Enterprises that opened July 29, and a center that opened late last year called The Shops at World Golf Village by Atlanta-based Cousins Properties Inc.

Like other Florida cities, Jacksonville is seeing more entertainment retail center developments. The Oliver Group Inc., Destin, Fla., and Lord Associates, Alexandria, Va., are developing Main Street Florida near Jacksonville's airport on the north side of town. The complex will feature Chautaugua Winery, a Muvico theater complex, Books-A-Million, Bed Bath & Beyond and Burlington Coat Factory. Phase I is expected to open in fall 2000.

On the west side, several centers are being developed around Blanding Boulevard and 103rd Street. For example, Publix and Stein Mart are building new spaces at Roosevelt Square, which also is undergoing a renovation.

A number of new chains are entering or planning to enter the market, such as Old Navy and Best Buy. But Jacksonville tends to run behind Tampa, Orlando and Miami in attracting new chains.

"I continue to be surprised that more chains don't look here," says John Pharr, senior vice president of operations for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Regency Realty Corp. "Jacksonville just doesn't have a reputation for having a lot of money, perhaps, but people who learn the market see that there are opportunities."

As in other markets, chains like Publix and Winn-Dixie are renovating or building new stores.

"It used to be that a grocery store could just renovate an existing location, but more and more they tear one down and build a bigger store," Pharr says.

But there are worries about the downtown. The much-ballyhooed Jacksonville Landings project, which features a combination of restaurants and shops, draws a good crowd at lunch, but it's much tougher to bring customers in at night or on weekends.

Orlando Giant theme parks supply much of the Orlando area's retail growth while also diversifying its mix. Universal Studio's CityWalk project has opened, while Disney has expanded Downtown Disney and opened a second complex called the Boardwalk. The formula for these projects is to assemble a collection of boutiques, theaters, restaurants and nightclubs.

But there's also plenty of action by more traditional retailers around Orlando, particularly in the southwest corridor. The number of regional malls in the greater Orlando area has doubled from 1997 to 1999, according to Colliers Arnold. Two new anchors - Burdines and Nordstrom - and 39 specialty shops are being added at The Florida Mall, managed by Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group. This expansion is another sign that more upscale retail is coming to central Florida. Restoration Hardware recently opened a store in Winter Park, and Swarovski, a crystal store, also has entered the market.

The Forbes Co., Southfield, Mich., and Taubman Centers Inc., Bloomfield Hills, Mich., plans to develop Emporio Orlando off Conroy Road and I-4. The 1.2 million sq. ft. upscale regional center has attracted Bloomingdale's and Macy's, both of which will be new to Orlando.

What's driving this growth is tourism - about 37 million visitors come to the Orlando area each year - and the maturing of Orlando as a business center, with more technology jobs joining the usual mix of service jobs. Outlying areas such as Lake Mary and Sanford are sharing in the growth.

"Our occupancy rates continue to be very strong (around 92%), and there's stabilization in the market," says John Crossman, senior vice president and director of retail for north Florida for Dallas-based Trammell Crow Co. "There are 3 million sq. ft. in the pipeline here, but I think the market can handle it."

Like many cities, Orlando faces the challenge of enticing people to shop downtown, where more apartments are being built, fueling hopes for a renaissance there. Maitland, Fla.-based Morbitzer Group Inc. is hoping to attract tourists, office workers and residents with its renovation and repositioning of Church Street Exchange, a 90,000 sq. ft. entertainment retail complex at Church Street Station in downtown Orlando.

Tampa-St. Petersburg The Sembler Co., a longtime St. Petersburg developer of grocery stores and shopping centers, continues its work on Centro Ybor, in conjunction with Miami-based Steiner & Associates. The restaurant/retail/movie complex in the Ybor City district of Tampa will feature 214,000 sq. ft. of retail space when it is completed in summer 2000. Sembler also is working on a similar project called BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg.

At the same time, The Hogan Group, Tampa, has started construction on an entertainment retail project called Channelside at Garrison Seaport in downtown Tampa. The 230,000 sq. ft. project will include 56,000 sq. ft. of restaurants and 97,000 sq. ft. of retail when completed in April 2000. Meanwhile, Echelon International Corp. of St. Petersburg is planning Carillon Town Center in its Carillon office park in north St. Petersburg. The 1.1 million sq. ft. theater/restaurant/retail project is expected to open in late 2000.

"All this is going to happen in the next 12 months, and it's going to be interesting to watch," says Berman of Cushman & Wakefield. "If [these projects] work, they are going to be great for the downtowns, but they're not a sure thing."

In Tampa, the other big news is the planned International Plaza, an upscale center being developed by Taubman that promises to bring Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Dillard's to the Tampa Bay area when it opens in September 2001.

But the center is only a short distance from the area's other premier upscale mall, WestShore Plaza, which features the area's first Saks Fifth Avenue. Managed by The Wilder Cos. Ltd., Boston, it is undergoing a $100 million expansion expected to be completed in fall 2000. Some wonder if both centers can thrive so close together, although mall officials insist there's plenty of business for both.

Another new mall, Citrus Park Town Center, brought in 1 million customers in its first 17 days after it opened in March, according to owner Urban Shopping Centers Inc., Chicago. Featuring a Main Street design by the Dallas office of Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc., it is anchored by Burdines, Dillard's, JCPenney, Sears and Regal 20 Cinemas. The center attracted a number of new chains to the area, including This End Up, Field of Dreams, The Walking Company, Yankee Candle and Watch World International.

Meanwhile, The Mills Corp., Arlington, Va., is teaming with Taubman for proposed Tampa Bay Mills that will be located on the site of the Florida State Fairgrounds east of Tampa. The 1.4 million sq. ft. project has a target opening date of 2002.

Tampa Bay is also the site for one of the strongest battles coming up in the Lowe's-Home Depot war. In fact, Lowe's is building a store directly across the street from a Home Depot in St. Petersburg.

South Florida Communities south of Miami are among the hottest areas for retail development in south Florida. The Shops at Sunset Place, centrally located between the business districts of Coconut Grove and Dadeland, opened in January with a 24-screen AMC Theatre complex, NikeTown, Virgin Megastore and GameWorks. It was a joint development of Simon and Comras Co., Miami Beach, Fla. Time will tell if it can pull shoppers from nearby CocoWalk and Streets of Mayfair, two other movie-anchored complexes that have enjoyed past success.

The high-income Coral Gables submarket will get even more upscale retail with the proposed Village of Merrick Park, a project of The Rouse Co., Columbia, Md., that is scheduled to open in three years with Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. And in Kendall, at least four centers are being proposed for the area around Dadeland Mall.

Of course, in many parts of south Florida, the most growth is where there's still land available. And in most cases, that means the slightly inland parts of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. In Broward County, Miramar and Pembroke Pines are exploding with growth. Three shopping centers are being built in this area, and another six are proposed, according to researchers at Terranova.

At the same time, new stores are being planned or built by a number of the chains driving retail growth all over the state: Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Publix and Winn-Dixie. Also, Home Depot is opening one of its new Expo Design Centers in the Davie area, and The Fashion Mall in Plantation plans to add a 24-screen AMC Theatre complex.

In Palm Beach County, Boca Raton is hot because it's close to Broward County, which has a strong job base. At least six centers are under construction or newly finished in the Wellington area, and Jupiter is growing with the development of a 2,055-acre urban community called Abacoa.

New retailers continue to enter the area, such as Old Time Pottery, a Murfreesboro, Tenn.-based chain that's moving into Hallandale and Homestead, and Garden Ridge, a Houston-based chain that's reportedly scouting locations.

"Things look really good for south Florida," Azor says. "People still have money to spend, and though that may slow down, I think next year should only be a fine-tuning of the economy."