An expo center in Boston transforms every year into the place for retail wheelers, dealers and feelers.

What’ll it take to bring more retail to Maine? Prayer might help.

BOSTON – It’s like the corporate version of Filene’s Basement, except with way more money, and no one gets naked in the aisles.

Brokers, eager to snag great locations for tenants, inspect – then toss – prospects. Developers paw through dozens of booths, looking for that pad, parcel or plot that calls to them.

The weary off to the side, sipping Diet Pepsi, wait for that second wind.

Maybe the fit’s not quite right, but just maybe, for the right price, it could be love.

Welcome to the Idea Exchange, a bustling convention sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers that drew 1,600 retail-dependent New England businesspeople looking for potential match-ups earlier this month.

Attendees were a Who’s Who of retail: Target. Starbucks. Linens-N-Things. Coldwater Creek. Olive Garden.

Among the throng: the developer behind Lewiston’s Exit 80; a broker working an under-construction Auburn strip mall; and Keith Luke, Windham’s economic development director, extolling the virtues of his town as a retail hot spot.

Why go?

“Retailers pay far more in property taxes than buildings with different space,” Luke said, noting the new Walgreens’ complex is leasing space at $20 per square foot – a new benchmark for that little town outside Portland. He met the broker for Walgreens at an ICSC convention.

In a sea of posterboard and razzle dazzle, Luke’s booth single-handledly raised Maine’s profile at the event. Aside from Scarborough’s Cabela’s project at the Feldco booth and two speakers who lamented Maine’s new regulation on big box stores, there was scant evidence of retail momentum north of the York tolls.

But, like a bride desperate to squeeze into a $99 Vera Wang, that didn’t stop the determined from trying.

Retail facetime

The first floor of the Boston Convention and Exposition Center presented an amusing microcosm of retail. At one end, überswank W/S Developers (no sighting, though, of local-guy-makes-it-big Jeremy Sclar, the W/S president.) Seven small, blond conference tables, each with chairs and a video display screen, were united by a thick, blue rug and anchored with a backdrop of development posters. Very posh.

Two aisles over, a lonely table with one chair and one sign for Big Lots.

But it didn’t matter much. Retailers of all stripes – large, small, mass merchandise, specialty, upscale and not – converge at the annual shindig for one reason: to make the connections that lead to deals.

“The convention is very good with regard to getting things done in a hurry,” said Charlie Craig, a Portland-based broker with NAI/Dunham Group, scouting Tim Hortons locations. “There’s no phone tag … it’s often more productive.”

Meghan Baldacci, a broker with Northeast Properties, was trying to line up neighbors for the $75 million Cabela’s project. With cold calling and e-mails, she guessed she might get three responses to 100 queries. But at the Idea Exchange, it’s instant access to hundreds of potential leads.

“There’s someone I’ve been trying to get in touch with the last month, we’ve been playing phone tag. He actually has a booth here in the 200 section,” she said, adding she planned to wander over. “Face to face is 100 percent better for me. I think that is true for a variety of reasons … You’ve got them: you’re not faced with voice mail, e-mailing.”

She’s on the prowl for restaurants, shoe stores, hair salons, eye doctors – the sky’s the limit. Ten prospects are looking over lease terms now, more than enough to fill the project.

“You just never know. I always have the outlook that I need to talk to anybody and everybody – this is a great place to do it,” she said.

For developer and broker Dan Catlin, the convention is a tried-and-true venue. He’s been coming for years, seeking tenants for Topsham and Brunswick projects. A recent feather in his and Mike Brescia’s cap: landing Olive Garden near the Topsham Fair Mall, with development partner Dick McGoldrick.

“The main reason to come down to these shows, you see who’s active, who’s got some new stores slated,” he said. “I talk to these retailers and they tell me where they want to go.”

Local revelations

One company – Aspen Dental – wants to come to Auburn and Topsham. The storefront dentistry plans to open in October in Topsham and later at 600 Turner Street in Auburn, said Catlin.

He made the initial contact with Aspen Dental at a previous ICSC convention.

“You hear of a new concept in upstate New York, then it comes to Massachusetts, then to Portsmouth and Portland and here,” he said.

Predicting who ultimately lands where is anybody’s guess, leaving developers with a “win-some, lose-some” mentality. Catlin said the Lowe’s pad in Auburn was originally going to be a Bed Bath & Beyond and Dick’s Sporting Goods, but that plan was abandoned. Both chains opened in Topsham last year, with BBB also opening a scaled-down store in the Auburn Plaza. This year, Catlin landed Olive Garden, which had been eyeing Auburn. On the upside…

“Auburn got the Kohl’s,” he said. “I’d been working on a Kohl’s deal in Brunswick. Because Auburn got the Kohl’s deal it really ruled it out for Topsham.”

That kind of jockeying for position keeps the rumors flowing and the speculation robust. Patrick Cleary, the Hecht Co. developer bringing a Wal-Mart Supercenter to Exit 80, could only smile when asked how things were progressing with that site.

“Exit 80 is moving along pretty well … we’d like to break ground this year,” he said, adding that he’d had a few inquiries about possible co-tenants that day.

Behind him were posters of other Hecht shopping centers in Seabrook, N.H.; Coventry, R.I.; Windsor, Conn.; and Haverhill, Walpole and Mansfield, Mass. Lewiston was absent.

“We haven’t begun marketing because (Exit 80) is still in the permitting phase,” said Cleary, adding the others were on display “because we’ve got to fill them up.”

The Lewiston project is still waiting for environmental permits, then it goes for state traffic permits.

“It’s not our timetable any longer,” he said.

Biz expansion: Sorry, Maine

Many retailers, typically mum within earshot of press, were pretty vocal about New England expansion plans.

Trendy Forever 21 wants to open 13 shops in 2008. Massage Envy, a hip new, bring-massage-to-the-masses venue, will do 30, including stores in New York.

Five Below, a preteen paradise, will add 20-plus.

Bruegger’s, a slightly upscale cafe based in Vermont, will add five this year, five next.

Only probably not here. Not one of these retailers, or nine others showcased at the convention, named Maine as a market of interest.

A lot of it has to do with numbers.

Bruegger’s requires 15,000 people within a mile before siting a store in an urban center – and 14 percent need to have at least a graduate degree.

Maine’s “not up on the radar,” said real estate manager Mercedes Resteghini.

The densest area in Lewiston has just over 11,000 people in a mile. Four percent of the city’s population holds a grad degree or better.

Yet the U.S. Census – a measure retailers use – isn’t perfect to get a bead on who’s here, said Tony Armstrong, another Northeast Properties broker.

It doesn’t take into account tourists or second home owners or willingness to travel, he said. “My sense is there’s a real misperception about Maine in terms of distance from southern New England and New York.”

Susan Sernett, real estate manager for H&M, said that trendy apparel store will expand to Seattle next year, and, given its culture and climate, “that would be a very good indication of how we would do in Maine.”

H&M’s closest store now is in New Hampshire, in The Mall at Rockingham Park. “That only does OK,” she said.

To site a new store, H&M needs 500,000 people in the trade area.

Half of Maine probably doesn’t count as a trade area.

And those masters of the breadstick left everyone at the convention hanging: a speaker from Olive Garden’s team scheduled to reveal expansion plans was a no-show.

1,000 developers and one plucky guy from Windham

Keith Luke’s had a booth at the two-day show for the last three years.

He was the only public official from any Maine city or town on the attendance roster.

“There are properties in Windham that are poised for redevelopment and there are a lot of players here,” Luke said. It cost the town about $500 to send him.

“I think it’s a great investment to be here, to interact.”

He talked retail, office and industrial space to anyone; spewed a fountain of numbers; offered the skinny on what’s available – all with unflagging boosterism.

Many inquiries were comically vague, like, “Are you happy with your movie theater?”

Windham recently landed Marshalls and Little Caesars. Planet Fitness and a national hotel chain are in front of the planning board.

“It can be easy to dismiss the impact of retail, but retail is an expansive term,” Luke said.

Bring in Staples, it’s “empowering a generation of work-at-home Mainers.”

Bring in Lowe’s or Home Depot, “they’re powering the whole construction, remodeling, renovation industry that’s booming in southern Maine.” Windham recently got both.

Luke left the convention with one promising lead on redeveloping “a significant property” in North Windham.

Next up in the retail circuit: a winter event in Rhode Island. “We’ll be there,” Luke said.

Like the determined shopper, you never know what you’ll find.


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