Midway through the year, many retail businesses give themselves an in-house assessment of their progress and potential. Strip center owners and managers would be wise to do the same, and consider upgrading various design elements to maximize appeal and profitability.

Remodeling projects can greatly enhance a strip center's character, street appeal and tenant satisfaction with a wide range of creative but cost-effective design changes. Improved visibility and accessibility are the key goals developers and retailers share when embarking on a remodel project.

The following design checklist illustrates how these goals are accomplished. The cost estimates included are based on industry estimates from cost books around the Midwest. It is important to note, however, that the Chicago area runs, on average, 10 percent higher than the national average.

Roofing. Adding shape and character to strip mall roofs is an easy way to make commercial sites appear more residential, a request often made by local zoning boards. A creatively designed roof, where the upgraded portion is "faked," adds depth to buildings without using up additional space. The cost of adding a minimal roofing element - say, using asphalt shingles over a facade for a more residential look - is about $2.08 per sq. ft. By comparison, cedar is nearly twice that amount and slate three times as much as asphalt. Each carries its own benefits, depending on need and budget.

Walls. Graffiti, discoloration or age on a building's exterior can be freshened up in a way that doesn't have to be costly. The simplest, most inexpensive exterior enhancement method is painting, which runs approximately $3.80 per sq. ft. A stucco finish (three-coat system) is about $7.47 per sq. ft. On a grander scale, decorative concrete block costs about three times more than stucco. It can be cost-prohibitive for some structures, but minimal use on a new structure or as a veneer on older structures may offer a dramatic, inviting visual appeal worth the investment.

Fascia. Simply adding one color to existing fascia can make a mall "pop." Adding image colors can enliven a fascia that previously had little character.

Walkways/Canopies. Adding a walkway can attract shoppers in inclement weather and work as a well-designed route. Canopies can serve as your strip center tenant's best advertisement, but be sure to check with local zoning authorities to ensure compliance.

Signage. This element alone can create a new image and serves as the most visible element of an image upgrade campaign. Stick with easy-to-read, simple, eye-catching graphics that don't try to say too much. Large, monument-style signs start at about $15,000; typical pole signs made of steel run about half that amount.

Landscape. For strip centers especially, landscaping is not a luxury design item; it is a necessity that should be carefully planned and maintained. Landscaping appeals to customers and speaks to environmental awareness. If money is tight, even some frontage around the center's entrances and main signage yields benefits.

Pavement and Curbing. Resealed pavement is inexpensive and enhances appeal, while curb painting freshens up old material, offering a more attractive, well-kept appearance.

Striping. Strive for high-contrast color like yellow, instead of shades of gray. Striping parking spaces and directionals on a regular basis keeps colors fresher longer. Clearly, the brighter and fresher a strip center appears, the easier it is to access and the stronger each tenant's presence becomes. The more dramatic the look, the greater a site's chances are for generating traffic and, ultimately, profits.

Lighting. It cannot be stated enough that bright lighting helps a site seem open and alive. Equally important, it increases the customer's sense of safety and allows the site to be seen from a distance.

Complete vs. partial remodel Most often, the decision to polish or demolish is based on a number of factors, not the least of which is whether the building has been paid for, its overall condition and, frankly, whether it would be more cost-effective over the long haul to build a fresh new site or make the best of what's already there.

But if the decision is to polish, it is almost always more cost-effective to enhance a large number of the design elements at once. A marketing consultant once said it is just as much work to plan an event for 30 people as it is for 300. The same general adage applies to architectural and construction work. It's best not to proceed on a piece-meal plan for several reasons.

First, coordinating textures, styles, signage, construction materials and lighting is a key component in the design of a strip center, but certain styles or popular exterior products may not be available when needed. Avoid the risk of having to mix and match due to unavailable design elements by utilizing the competitive bidding process, getting all necessary materials and completing the job at once. Greater cost savings, fewer headaches and, most importantly, a cohesive appearance are valuable benefits of an aggressive enhancement plan.

Second, because reliable, knowledgeable construction teams are few and far between, it's vital to keep a winning team intact. A qualified project manager lives and dies by the reliability of key professionals, so get the most out of a qualified team while you have them.

Third, consider the image that a strip center presents to tenants and customers when minor but time-consuming projects are under way throughout the year - like the "handyman" neighbor who always has a project in progress in his yard. The toll this takes on perception of the center may end up costing dearly in terms of lost customers.

A major remodel, on the other hand, can be made into an event. Promoting a big project can generate valuable publicity and a sense of excitement that results in greater loyalty and profits.

So, while you have the time and focus of the consultants and crews (the meter is running, so to speak), while customer/tenant access is being hampered anyway (if only temporarily), while the corporate development staff and local authorities are already reviewing your plan - make the most of it and complete as many elements as possible simultaneously.

When in doubt, job it out There is a domino effect of negative results from a poorly managed remodeling project. Left in the wrong hands, mishandled by inexperienced or too-busy executives, a strip center remodeling rip-off can result from any of the following avoidable troubles:

* Construction crew turnover and delays, resulting in extensive disruption to business hours, poor craftsmanship and loss of profits;

* Non-compliance with local codes, leading to added costs in penalties and repairs;

* Higher costs for project due to lack of accountability and failure to acquire competitive bids for all design project elements;

* Frustration and loss of profits by valuable tenants who may be prepared to shorten their leases and move elsewhere as a result of costly and inefficient remodeling experience.

Fortunately, a relatively new breed of architectural firm is gaining popularity, displaying an ability to tie up all the loose ends of a design/remodeling campaign, from architecture to permitting to project management.

For retailers or property owners whose headquarters are across the country, these local insiders come to the rescue with in-the-trenches expertise about local zoning codes and existing relationships with municipality representatives.

Consider this scenario: The local government body encourages strip center owners to update facades to keep attracting quality businesses. Here, an architect can negotiate on behalf of owners so that the local governing body finances a percentage of the remodel project, allowing for a more comprehensive project including landscaping, signage, canopies, etc.

Further, the local, specialized architect can be on-site within a short period of time to take a site assessment, oversee construction and equipment crews, or negotiate and expedite government approvals. These seemingly trivial issues can become major headaches for professionals involved in multiple properties and the retail team assigned to coordinate expansion in a particular region.

Often, an owner encounters a retail center that needs to fit onto a particular location, but the floor plan is a challenge. A one-stop project manager can handle as-built drawings and all architecture, as well as provide local representation on project development. Also, facility assessment and viability studies are extremely important before any work is done, whether on behalf of the retail business, the site owner or property manager.

So when changing local demographics leave a strip center looking dated, use of architectural expertise can provide a project team with big-picture and small-picture perspectives. The local, specialized architect is most often appreciated for ideas on how to increase visual appeal of a site in a way that answers to local residents' needs.