‘360’ Forum: For Leesburg, Experience is the Opportunity

Developers and real estate industry representatives gathered in Leesburg this morning to highlight the town’s economic growth opportunities.

The annual Leesburg Property Reveal 360 forum was held at one of the town’s business success stories, Cobb Theatres in Village at Leesburg, which recently secured approvals for an expansion.

The event provides attendees with a snapshot of the town’s business and development happenings, as well as a chance for some area real estate professionals to spotlight their available in-town properties.

It was a swan song of sorts for Economic Development Director Marantha Edwards who, two months’ shy of retirement, was hosting her final 360 event. And her last event ended on a seemingly positive note for Leesburg.

“It’s no secret that Leesburg’s vibrancy is increasing,” she said to the audience members gathered Thursday.

A hot downtown retail market, a relatively low office vacancy rate, and the growth of the town’s HUBZone were all cited as accomplishments. On the latter alone, Edwards noted that in the four years since part of the downtown area was designated as a federal HUBZone, 300 jobs have been created.

A panel of industry experts—including Planning and Zoning Department Director Susan Berry-Hill, Taylor Chess of the Peterson Companies, Bill May of Miller & Smith, and Brian Cullen of Keane Enterprises—focused on the evolving trend of experiential retail.

It’s a trend that’s here to stay, Chess said, not a passing fad. Experiential retail is about “doing rather than shopping,” Cullen said. It’s about providing residents with a reason to come out and patronize shops by providing an experience that can’t be found on Amazon or another online retailer.

Examples of experiential retail include anything from basic services like hair and nail salons to dining establishments, paint bars, bookshops with coffee bars, and even escape rooms.

Placemaking plays an integral role in drawing people out of the comfort of their homes, they said. Sometimes this can mean creating an active community space, like an open plaza that hosts concerts and outdoor festivals, to bring more people to a shopping center.

May said it initially was hard to sell his accountant on the concept that the anchor of One Loudoun was going to be something that didn’t pay rent—the center’s open community plaza, which has a splash pad, seating, and hosts many events.

“This type of [retail] environment takes that type of investment to create the place,” he said.

How to counter the “Amazon effect” is a hot topic among those in the industry. The online giant and the rise of online shopping in general has eroded the business of some of the globe’s strongest retailers. How brick and mortar stores can stay in business or start up has more than a few scratching their heads.

“That’s what everyone’s wrestling with,” said Cullen, who recently purchased the Virginia Village shopping center. “I think there are going to be far fewer retailers in a post-Amazon world. To counter the Amazon thing, you have to be very, very creative and you have to take a lot of risks. Trying to find local retailers with a good business plan that are experiential in nature, that’s a strength for a local developer. The stickier the tenant base is and the more local it is, the less susceptible they are to things going dark.”

“When there’s change going on that’s when the entrepreneurs come out,” Berry-Hill said.

She pointed to a recent example of a company trying to fill the “niches” left by the growth of online shopping. Happy Returns places “return bars” in retail locations throughout the nation to make the process of returning an online purchase more seamless and customer-friendly, without the trip to the post office.

Panelists agreed that the Leesburg market, particularly the downtown historic district, has an ideal opportunity to take advantage of the hot experiential retail market.

“I think downtown, it needs to expand on that experiential outside aspect. We need to allow for redevelopment opportunities to happen when the market is right for it,” Chess said. “It comes to flexibility within the town and the approval process to get these things done.”

Cullen also stressed that a hard look at existing zoning regulations, many of which are geared toward suburban-style development, need to be updated to take advantage of the market’s opportunities.

“It’s an interesting time we’re all living in. Most of the development done in our history is post-World War II development. There was a huge demand coming from the baby boomers, everyone drove to everything. Our ordinances are all geared to that sort of mindset,” he said. “Do we have ordinances that are locked down to a way of life that people are moving away from?”

“These [opportunities] are fleeting,” Chess said. “When we talk about ordinances and the rules you must develop under, those were developed under what were developed in the past. We need to be thinking in the future. You don’t want what you had, you don’t want what you have. You want what you don’t have, what you don’t know about. The town needs to be prepared to change quickly. You need to be able to be nimble.”

The current market and its changing condition pose an opportunity for both the public and private sectors to work together to make sure localities are not left behind, he said.

“We’re all in it together. We’re all creating places that we want to last for a long time,” Cullen said. “The jurisdictions that get this right are going to be the winners.”

krodriguez@loudounnow.com

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