Recapturing overlooked markets, particularly those where minority-dominated, inner-city neighborhoods have been underestimated, will be an important factor in the future as infill activity begins to drive new development. That's where urban site selection pioneer Kimberley Thompson comes in.

As an executive vice president for Johnson Development Corp., 37-year-old Thompson travels the United States searching for misunderstood urban neighborhoods that can support new movie theaters, stores and restaurants. Now that Johnson Development's retail projects are going gangbusters, other developers and retailers are learning to follow Thompson's lead into uncharted territory (see story on page 22).

Johnson Development partners with national brands to place stores in inner cities. Its mission: to “change the fabric of the community,” says Thompson — to create jobs, seed more development and turn blighted areas into thriving commercial and residential districts.

Thompson grew up in L.A.'s' South Central neighborhood, no stranger to blight. She studies the demographics at prospective locations and meets with community leaders and public officials. But that's not enough. She also tours the neighborhood thoroughly, walking and taking the train or driving through.

Former president of Johnson Development, Ken Lombard, taught her persistence, says Thompson. “You really have to be diligent,” she says. “It's about executing; staying on top of everything. And you really are only as good as your last deal.”

She must have learned well. Lombard, her boss until May when he took a job as president of Starbucks' entertainment unit, calls Thompson “skilled at follow-through on assignments,” and says, “she always provides 100 percent focus on a project from start to completion.”

Well, almost always. Lombard once found Thompson asleep at her desk — probably after one of her 7 a.m. flights from the East Coast. Thompson has visited all 70 existing Johnson Development-Starbucks sites and has checked out almost as many others. “It's constant,” she sighs. “There's never a time when you just slow down.”

Not long after the partnership launched in 1998, she and Starbucks' Wendy Beckman, director of Urban Coffee Opportunities, hit five cities in eight days, complete with 11 p.m. flight arrivals and 5 a.m. cab rides. “By day six, all we could do was laugh,” says Beckman.

Giddy or not, they've evidently chosen well. Only three stores have been closed for underperformance. The goal is to have 125 in place by 2006. If Thompson can keep up the pace, she will have vetted them all.