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An alternative to the big box debate

POSTED January 21, 2011 10:05 p.m.

Late on the night of Jan. 11, in the cozy confines of the Yosemite Room of Turlock City Hall, a Turlock City Council meeting continued on well past 10 p.m.

The topic was the oft-discussed matter of should-we-or-shouldn’t-we allow big box stores into Turlock. The discussion hasn’t changed all that much since 2004, when the then-council banned stores like Walmart Supercenters and Super Targets, which combine large grocery stores with other retail shopping.

But as we few remaining brave – or paid, in my case – warriors sitting in the audience attempted not to doze off at the late hour, a wrinkle was put into the discussion for the first time in recent memory.

Newly seated Councilmember Forrest White, like his fellow council members, recognized why the subject had been brought up again in the first place: Turlock needs more tax money. Theoretically, should a big box store attract new shoppers to town rather than simply running its competitors out of business and replacing one store with another, Turlock could make more tax money by allowing big box stores.

Why, though – and I’m paraphrasing here – has Turlock been so focused on big box stores as the only solution these past years, asked White. What about other alternatives, say, perhaps, an outlet mall?

The comment passed without much discussion – understandably so, as the item was not agendized and as such any discussion would be of questionable legality – but instantly set my mind in motion.

Why not, say, perhaps, an outlet mall?

Longtime readers will know I’m not opposed to new shopping opportunities in Turlock. In a past column I’ve already written about my desire to see a Trader Joe’s, a Best Buy, a Toys R’ Us and Kids R’ Us, an Old Navy, and an Ikea in Turlock. The piece, entitled “Ready to shop” is available on the TurlockJournal.com Web site, and comes highly recommended as both a humorous and informative column, if I do say so myself.

As I was writing that column, though, an outlet mall didn’t even cross my mind as a possibility. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.

A big box store might detrimentally impact other Turlock businesses. But, given our relative lack of clothing stores, a mall would likely have little effect on existing shoppers. Any business “stolen” would be replaced by folks we’d draw from out of town.

Turlock can’t have a typical retail mall, because we’re sandwiched tight between the Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto and the Merced Small (the typo is intentional). Outlet malls draw an entirely different clientele, though – a clientele that keeps growing.

An article in the Dayton Daily News from May 2010 details the successes of the new, Cincinnati Premium Outlets, then celebrating its one-year anniversary. At the height of a down economy, the facility opened with 100 stores, near to full capacity.

“When you’re in an outlet location like we are, it does well when the economy is slow and it does well when the economy is good because you’re getting 25 to 65 percent off most your merchandise. A lot of people are becoming savvy shoppers,” Robin Tackett, general manager of the outlet center, told the Dayton Daily News.

An April 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about the Tanger Outlet in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., paints a similar picture. The 264,000 square-foot center had three empty storefronts, but new tenants were already signed up. The demand for retail space at outlet centers is high nationwide, the article said, as retail chains are attempting to expand outlet operations but few new outlets are opening.

Perhaps more importantly for the Wisconsin Dells retailers, sales and traffic were up double digits at the outlet, year-over-year.

"A lot of consumers have heard about outlet malls. Now they're trying to shop them," Linda Humphers, editor in chief of Value Retail News, told the Journal Sentinel.

Based on my admittedly preliminary research, there are 26 outlet malls in the State of California. Eleven of those are arguably in Northern California, depending on how one opts to separate north from south.

None of these are within an hour of Turlock. An outlet mall in Turlock would likely draw deal-seeking shoppers from Modesto to Merced, not to mention the folks in foothill towns to the east and Patterson to the west.

That’s a pretty big swath of California to draw from. A huge number of potential shoppers.

The two closest outlet malls to Turlock are in Tracy, a roughly one hour drive to the north, and in Tulare, a roughly two hour drive to the south. Of those two, I think it makes more sense to compare Turlock with Tulare.

Both are cities of similar size – Turlock’s approximately 70,000 residents compared to Tulare’s 59,000 – and both are situated along Highway 99. Tulare is just south of Visalia – a city of 125,000 – while Turlock is just south of Modesto – a city of 211,000.

The Premium Outlets at Tulare thrive with 55 stores and two restaurants, with everything from Calvin Klein to Hickory Farms and Izod to Nike. The diversity of offerings is spectacular, and few overlap with existing offerings at Modesto and Merced’s malls.

There’s ready land for such an outlet mall in the south of Turlock, along Highway 99. It’s just sitting there, waiting to be developed.

I’m not sure if White threw out the concept of an outlet mall as an off-hand comment, or if it’s something he thought about long before the meeting. But I have thought about it now, and I’m convinced.

If Turlock wants a new, major retail development which won’t conflict with existing stores, an outlet mall is a good idea. If Turlock wants more tax dollars, and wants to meet residents’ wants for more shopping opportunities, an outlet mall is a good idea. If Turlock wants to put an end to this big box debate, an outlet mall is a good idea.

So why not, say, perhaps, an outlet mall?

To contact Alex Cantatore, construct a 50-plus store shopping center offering goods at up to 70 percent off retail prices and pay Turlock millions in tax dollars, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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