Ready, set, go. The doors are open at the Asheville Outlets mall just off of Interstate 26. Much like Black Friday, shoppers needed to get there early to get the best items. With buzz and excitement, a whole array of “big city” retailers have come to Asheville, bringing a wide variety of merchandise and low, low prices. To drive up excitement, the actual names of the specific retailers were held in suspense. The names of the retailers were doled out by teaspoons to the media. Only one day at a time the general public could find out who was coming—perhaps on television, perhaps on Facebook or Twitter, or perhaps in the newspapers.
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Asheville outlets will offer 70 or more shopping locations in a 325,000-sq.-ft. facility. Each store opens out into an outdoor shopping arcade. The facility is expected to employ 800 to 1000 people and generate $8.3 million per year in tax revenues at state and local levels.
It’s a May Day to remember when the new Asheville Outlets mall opens in the old Biltmore Square Mall location. It’s new, it’s exciting, and, yes guys, our wives will dump us off like autumn leaves blowing from the back of the truck as they head for this new regional attraction. It’s brand new, not just a face lift, and it’s exciting. Visitors will come in the form of Biltmore Estate tourists, who might stay an extra day for the excitement of shopping, as well as day-trippers, driving in from a 100-mile radius to do some sightseeing, have lunch or dinner in Asheville, and see the new outlets and pick up some bargains. So, what is an outlet store and how does it differ from stores in the Asheville Mall or the old Biltmore Square Mall?
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New England development is the developer of asheville outlets. Construction is contracted to winter construction of Atlanta Georgia. Financing was arranged through Tremont Realty Capital, a commercial real estate investment and advisory company. Tremont has a realty portfolio valued at more than $775 million. The Asheville Outlets investment is listed in the Tremont portfolio as a 496,000-sq.-ft. mall under the Biltmore square name. New England’s portfolio lists more than 50 million square feet of retail, commercial, and residential space to their credit. New England is headed by chairman and founder Stephen R. Karp, vice chairman Steven S. Fischman, and president Douglass E. Karp. The local manager is Sharon Morgan.
First of all it’s outdoors. The Asheville Outlets developer realized that competing with the Asheville Mall on South Tunnel Road was a losing proposition. Two or three or more different owners of the Biltmore Square property had proven that. The Asheville Mall wasn’t even a target anymore. It is a local shrine for indoor mall shoppers and the stores they want to find in a mall environment. Anyone seeking to compete should just go ahead and wire their money to the Nigerian lottery guy. Same guaranteed result, lots less time and effort.
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The asheville mall was the vision of the late Richard L. (pokey) Coleman, a pioneering developer in the Asheville area. The mall opened in an undeveloped area on the other side of the asheville tunnel in 1971 and took Asheville by storm. Within a few years, with mall growth well beyond the developer’s dreams, downtown Asheville was a wasteland of deserted buildings and was nearly devoid of nightlife (other than a few bars) after the bankers and lawyers went home. The situation was so dire that city council determined government intervention was required. Council voted to approve a massive downtown redevelopment project that would have turned most the central business district into a massive indoor mall. The proposal, called the Strouse Greenberg project, called for bulldozing everything between patton avenue, haywood street, i-240, and broadway. The 11 square block area of vintage 1900 buildings would be destroyed in order to gain federal funding. The 1981 price tag was estimated at $125 million, ($275 million in 2015 dollars) and Asheville would have lost nearly all of its current charm. Opposition soon formed led by downtown businessman wayne caldwell, who put together an odd coalition of business people, preservationists, liberals, and conservatives. It may have been the one thing nearly everyone in Asheville opposed. The issue was defeated. A well-documented senior thesis on the matter by UNC Asheville student Molly Sager is available on-line.
The Asheville Outlets are completely privately financed. There are no bonds being floated, it doesn’t ask for anything to be condemned, and in its former life as the Biltmore Square Mall it has proven to be as easy to get in and out of as the original Asheville Mall was in 1971. How long that will last is a question. I-26 needs to be widened, and a lot of people have virtually spent the better years of their lives talking about the I-26 Connector across the French Broad River. No one knows how that project will be funded or when and if it will even be started. But for now, Asheville Outlets has a prime location with room for expansion without encroaching on its neighbors. According to Sharon Morgan, general manager of the Asheville Outlets, outlet stores offer a different shopping experience. “The first thing you’ll notice at Asheville Outlets is the stores face an open walkway not an interior mall corridor,” Morgan says. “The developer wanted to incorporate Asheville’s love of the outdoors, and our shopping experience reflects that. There are covered areas to block the rain and sun, but you are really enjoying a completely different environment from a traditional mall.”
Eliminating the interior corridors also brings a significant reduction in overhead that the stores can pass on to their customers. There are no expenses for common area heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). Each store pays the cost of its own space. The size of the store and its architecture determine the HVAC cost it incurs. Vendors will lease stores that range from small to tens of thousands of square feet. They can even lease a gussied up cart out in the breezeway, selling any number of specialty items from hand crafted jewelry to custom made baseball caps. They’re not all leased yet, so nobody really knows where the entrepreneurial spirit may lead. Morgan believes the carts will reflect Asheville’s extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit.
The fact of the matter is that talking with Sharon Morgan is like taking the introductory lecture to Mall Management 101 at a good university. Asheville Outlets is her 10th mall. She is a veteran of the business and was the Biltmore Square Mall manager when she was hired by the Asheville Outlet’s developers to bring the new facility on line.
“I actually started my working career in radio, television, and newspapers,” she explains. “I was with WKPT- AM/FM and TV in Kingsport for five years, then went to Houston to work in FM radio for a black rock Christian station. That was a ton of fun. I moved to Longview, Texas, to work for a Cox newspaper, then got homesick and transferred to Atlanta. I wanted to get back to the mountains (she’s from Kingsport) so I found a job with the Ft. Henry Mall in Kingsport as marketing director. I did the same thing for the Bristol Market and at the Blacksburg Mall. That was where I was both the manager and the marketing director. I took the industry professional management courses through International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) not only to have the right certifications for the jobs but to learn how to do them. I recommend it to everyone who plans to make a career in retail marketing.”
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The ICSC is a stabilizing force in retail sales and management that lifts its members above the concept of promoting the best salesperson into management with no formal training. That salesperson often is a fish out of water. Retailing is just as professional as selling real estate, with regulation that involves multiple, overlapping layers of city councils, county planners, taxation, and, of course, creating great customer satisfaction. Applicants for ICSC certification in marketing and in management have to have a minimum of three years experience in their specialty plus two years of formal ICSC education.
[quote float=”right”]Morgan is quick to thank local businesses and tourism officials for their support, especially the Biltmore Estate, Biltmore Village, and the Chamber of Commerce. “If we can add one day to a person’s stay in Asheville, everyone will benefit,” she says. [/quote]
The floor plan of the outlets is virtually identical with that of the Biltmore Square Mall. The developer liked the mall’s layout and even left the food court in its original location. But everywhere, they removed the roof. The future of the Asheville Outlets could be brilliant but really remains to be seen. Other regional outlets are successful, and Asheville’s many other attractions give it a huge edge over outlets simply stacked alongside I-85 with no real attraction and, in many cases, no compelling reason to exist. Morgan is quick to thank local businesses and tourism officials for their support, especially the Biltmore Estate, Biltmore Village, and the Chamber of Commerce. “If we can add one day to a person’s stay in Asheville, everyone will benefit,” she says.
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She understates. there are no problems in the world that a woman with a credit card, good shoes, and an outlet mall can’t solve.
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