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Politicians chase retailers to boost revenue, imag

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Hoping to boost their image and tax base, cities are getting more involved in making their communities better places to shop, dine and be entertained.

Local governments are particularly interested in shaping their retail environments by creating new town centers and sometimes offering incentives to bring in shops and restaurants. One city is even pondering ways to help revive a struggling mall.

"I see city governments today much more active -- and they should be -- in keeping successful retail enterprises in their marketplace," said Britt Beemer, a retail consultant and president of America's Research Group.

Indeed, the International Council of Shopping Centers says public officials are the fastest-growing category of its membership, increasing 77 percent during four years. They're using their memberships to network with developers and retailers.

Some want the ambitious town centers, a concept that brings together apartments, condos, retail, offices and public-gathering areas such as amphitheaters, community centers or parks.

Others just want fun, trendy shops that attract people and boost the community's tax base.

A strong retail environment can show the vibrancy of a community and be a key component in the quality of life that companies want for their employees, said Cindy Stewart, head of local government relations for the ICSC.

In Deltona -- a city of more than 75,000 still struggling to lure major retailers -- residents and city officials were overjoyed at the announcement earlier this year that Wal-Mart was coming to town. The project is expected to generate $3 million in taxes annually. The jobs will be generally low-paying ones, but that's fine with Bob Nix, the city's development-services director.

"One thing you want in your job mix is enough service- and retail-oriented jobs to care for that portion of your population that works in those classes of jobs," he said.

However, Nix said the city doesn't pay incentives or recruit retail.

But unlike Deltona, which has the residents but not the places for them to shop, some communities might be encouraging retail and office development in areas where the market isn't yet ready, experts said.

That's particularly true in some cities that are creating mixed-use town centers, said David Marks, whose company, Marketplace Advisors, focuses on the ambitious projects meant to create a sense of place in suburban communities.

In a nationwide trend, cities are shelling out money to hire consultants, pay for road improvements and, in some cases, even rebuild city halls as the centerpiece of new town centers.

"Communities don't really understand what they're getting into," Marks said. "You've really got to make sure you're matching it up with the demographics.

"You can build something that looks great, but you don't have the market to support it."

In Winter Springs, some residents have expressed disappointment in what they've seen so far in their new Town Center. The city has poured more than $3.5 million of roads, sidewalks and sewer improvements into the development.

Critics say the result, so far, is little more than a fancy-looking strip shopping center with Publix Super Market as its centerpiece.

Retail experts say expectations for the center may have been too high.

"They really wanted more Park Avenue type of uses that really weren't feasible based on the type of demographics," Marks said.

Developer James Doran Co. said the first phase of Town Center was meant to be home to more everyday businesses.

Winter Springs officials still have high hopes. Phase 2 is expected to include 700 apartments; an additional 500,000 square feet of retail and restaurants; and 300,000 square feet of office space.

"That's going to make a difference," Mayor John Bush said. "You've got to have foot traffic in town centers, and that's what the rooftops are going to bring."

Other communities are bringing in the residences at the same time as the commercial development. In Altamonte Springs' new "downtown" district, the first phase will include commercial development and apartments. The area already attracts visitors because of its nearby mall, hotels and Cranes Roost Park.

Orlando says it already figured out the strategy that residences generate retail.

Millions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks are going toward big, mixed-use developments. The latest to get approval: a high-rise condo and office tower including a full-service grocery store that the City Council decided Monday should get $3.7 million in incentives, though two council members were opposed to the deal.

But redevelopment officials there say they focus on bringing residents to the downtown, because the stores will follow them.

"I think you'll find recently that downtown development's strategy has been to focus on residential development," said Daisy Staniszkis, assistant director of Orlando's Downtown Development Board. "That is really going to spur a retail renaissance into downtown."

Building before the market is ready doesn't just happen in public-private partnerships. Oviedo Marketplace officials say part of the reason traffic there has lagged behind that of other malls is because the area doesn't yet have enough residents.

City Council officials have become so concerned about the mall that they've begun talking about what government can do to help.

One thing being considered is easing the city's sign restrictions, to allow the mall to advertise more heavily on Oviedo's major nearby roads.

Located at one of Central Florida's busiest intersections, a lack of visibility isn't a problem for the Casselberry Exchange. But the shopping center, which had been expected to revitalize the intersection of State Road 436 and U.S. Highway 17-92 when it was built five years ago, is struggling. Two major anchors have left. Kash n' Karry pulled out of Central Florida in 2004, and CVS closed the Eckerd Drugs outlet after buying the chain's Southeastern stores last year.

Now, Casselberry is offering incentives to businesses willing to locate there. It paid half the $20,000 demolition bill to clear out an old building in the plaza and make way for a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant.

The city offers incentives to businesses filling other vacancies along U.S. 17-92, but Casselberry Exchange -- in front of which the city once posted a sign marking "Casselberry Downtown" -- is particularly important.

"I'd say that one has priority because of where it is right at the entry to the city," said Dick Wells, Casselberry's community-development director.

Just down the road, the city also is building a town center around its City Hall. Oviedo also is building a new downtown about a mile from its mall.

But troubles with more conventional retail may cause problems for cities trying to create town centers.

"Certainly, if the community gets a bad image as a retail community, I would think that would hurt them," Beemer said. "As long as the shopping-center area is thriving, obviously it would be a plus."

Sandra Pedicini can be reached at [email protected] 407-772-8033.

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