DALLAS — Developers late Tuesday described their vision of a vibrant new fashion district in downtown Dallas in hopes of convincing tenants of the International Apparel Mart to sign up for space in a vacant skyscraper across the street from Neiman Marcus.

But sales reps at the meeting were dismayed that the project wouldn’t be ready for occupancy until September 2005 — 18 months after the International Apparel Mart is scheduled to close and its 600 tenants relocated to the nearby World Trade Center. In the interim, the developers proposed holding markets at the Dallas Convention Center, where dates have already been reserved.

"We are great advocates of Dallas and of the apparel industry," said Paul Stell of Stellar Development, a partner in the proposed project, addressing about 160 people at the Renaissance Hotel. "We believe this creates an identity for the fashion market."

Gerald Sampson, retired president of Neiman Marcus and a longtime champion of rejuvenating downtown, spoke from the dais in support of the concept, which he likened to a "mini Seventh Avenue."

Under the plan, the historic Mercantile building would be revamped to house showrooms and services, such as high-end retail shops plus a sample-sale outlet, restaurants, an atrium for fashion shows and a penthouse club.

Stell suggested that an adjacent proposed city park could be used for tented runway shows, modeled after 7th on Sixth in New York, but geared toward consumers. In thinly veiled jabs at the Dallas Market Center, he promised that the management team would cater to the interests of tenants and would have a transparent marketing budget.

Stellar and Crosland Investments, another Dallas developer, are in the process of buying the square-block Mercantile complex from Spire Realty Group. The concept has the backing of Neiman Marcus and Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit consortium working to redevelop downtown.

"Clearly, Neiman Marcus will do anything we can to support this because we think it’s great for the city," Neiman’s vice president Shelle Bagot told the group.

Several people applauded the concept but said they were concerned about logistical issues, while others dismissed it as hype.

"It’s a great idea, but there’s too much time lapse," said Samantha Hamilton, who shows contemporary lines. "I’m leaning toward the World Trade Center as a more solid idea. It’s done.""We’d have to move twice, and nobody will want to go to the Convention Center and set up a booth," asserted Carol Ferrell, who shows bridge collections.

"It doesn’t seem to be in anybody’s interests to split the market business," observed Butch Plott, a principal in Navia-Plott.

The proposed average rent of $24 a square foot was questioned by a few people, who said some tenants pay as little as $13 a foot in the Apparel Mart, depending on their location.

Stell asked that interested parties fax him a form by Feb. 7 detailing their space needs, adding that he hoped leasing would begin by Feb. 17.

He said on Thursday that he received more than 10 faxes.

"We’re looking for a significant show of interest and we found that on a variety of levels." He added that tenants are particularly interested in creating a single fashion center, instead of combining it in a mart that also houses other products.

Dubbed "Fashion District Dallas," the project started in September when Mart tenants went to the developers seeking an alternate home for their businesses, said Henry S. Miller 3rd, a prominent local developer who is consulting with the team and plans to spearhead the retail leasing.

The DMC announced its plan to move the industry Sunday, strategically preempting public disclosure of the downtown project. The DMC has told tenants that over the next few weeks it will allocate space in the World Trade Center with priority of choice based upon a leaseholder’s tenure in the Mart, square footage and payment history. One rep, who was enthusiastic about moving downtown, nonetheless questioned whether he wanted to give up his strong chance to gain a favorable location in the WTC for an unknown situation.

Brad Hughes, who operates one of the largest showrooms, felt the Fashion District Dallas presentation didn’t adequately address the needs of the buyers.

"Our retailers will benefit more by being in the World Trade Center," he asserted. "It’s more convenient. And with one-third of our stores carrying gifts, it will make it one-stop shopping. It’s an easy building to work in and has good energy."

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