It's not often that a community sincerely sings the praises of a developer. But it's exactly what's happening in Fruitport Charter Township in Michigan, where this month CBL & Associates Properties Inc., Chattanooga, Tenn., is set to open The Lakes Mall, a new 700,000 sq. ft. center just outside Muskegon, Mich.

“The quality of life here is certainly improving because of the mall coming in,” says Connie Smith, supervisor of Fruitport Charter Township. “It's hard to calculate at this point, but the land in the area of the mall has become a lot more desirable. The mall was a catalyst.” She points out that the Lakes Mall's presence has spurred new commercial and residential development.

Fruitport Charter Township is enviably situated near the shores of Lake Michigan in the western part of the state. It's within 200 miles of both Chicago and Detroit. Although the area has been in a growth cycle — jumps in tourism numbers and 30 companies that have expanded their operations during 1999 and 2000, for instance — retail hasn't kept pace. Larry Turk, CBL's regional leasing director, describes the area in a word, “under-retailed.”

Before CBL's arrival, residents' shopping options included a local Muskegon mall — one created by enclosing several downtown streets that hadn't stayed current in terms of aesthetics or retailers and was floundering — or making a 45-minute drive to Grand Rapids, the nearest city. Although some national retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, PetSmart and Toys ‘R’ Us were in place, the area was missing stores like Victoria's Secret, American Eagle and the Gap, according to Turk.

CBL estimates that more than $150 million in retail sales was leaving the Muskegon market annually because of a lack of a regional mall. “Our strategy was to serve the secondary market of a larger city — Grand Rapids — with a first class offering of national tenants,” says Michael Lebovitz, CBL's senior vice president of mall development. The Lakes Mall expects to attract shoppers not only in its primary trade area like Muskegon, Spring Lake, Twin Lake and Nuncia, but also from other counties and communities further out, like Casnovia, Conklin, Coopersville, Grand Haven and Ravenna. The project's pre-leasing success bears out CBL's theory about holes in the market. As of early July, the center was 85% preleased.

The area's numbers also made the place desirable. The triangle between Muskegon, Grand Rapids and Grand Haven, for instance, is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country and the unemployment rate averages 2.9%, compared with 4.1% nationally.

The total trade area includes a 2000 population estimated at 315,754, which is projected to grow to 330,731 by 2005. In addition, in the primary trade area, the average household income in 2000 was estimated at $48,927 and is projected to increase to $56,415 in 2005. Moreover, the actual site is near a major intersection, making the Lakes Mall easily accessible to the entire region. “The trends are positive. It's really a solid community. It's not going to be a high-growth community, but it's not a contracting community either. I think the area has been ripe for development and I think we hit it at the right time,” Lebovitz says.

Developing with heart

Beyond having a new shopping venue, the township also benefited from CBL working hand-in-hand with the local government to make infrastructure improvements. “I can't remember there ever being a negative from the community regarding the Lakes Mall coming in. It enabled Fruitport Charter Township to build its sewer system, and growth can't occur without that kind of infrastructure,” Smith says.

In addition, locals appreciate CBL's plan for the overall appearance (for more about the design, see “A Design That Endears”) of the center. “They took our location into consideration when planning the design, color scheme and logo so they would be representative of the community,” Smith adds.

In addition to three anchors — JC Penney (107,000 sq. ft.), Sears (116,000 000 sq. ft.), and Younkers (106,000 000 sq. ft.) — the center's tenants will include a 25,000 sq. ft. Bed Bath & Beyond, The Gap, Victoria's Secret, American Eagle Outfitters and Aeropostale. Several restaurants — Bob Evans, Brann's Restaurant, Olive Garden and Red Lobster — have signed on for freestanding facilities at the site. The center can also grow by about 500,000 sq. ft. to accommodate future anchors, and CBL is also planning for 10 more freestanding businesses, such as branch banks and other eateries.

At one time, Smith's grandparents owned part of the Lakes Mall's 100-acre site, which was a blueberry field. “When you see development come in, it affects you personally,” she says. “But when you work with and get to know the CBL people and it's a positive experience, it alleviates the stress that sometimes goes with new development. You know that your ancestors gave their heart to the soil and you know that CBL is giving its heart to the development of its building.”