A RETAIL GUSHER
NO LONGER IN THE SHADOW OF BIG D, FORT WORTH IS COMING INTO ITS OWN WITH A BURGEONING ECONOMY AND EXPLODING RETAIL SCENE.

Byline: Lynne Richardson

FORT WORTH — There’s a retail stampede going on here.
A growing population spurred by new businesses and area attractions is fostering a store boom, with new and remodeled department and specialty retailers charging into new and expanded malls.
New stores are planned for Foley’s, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, while J.C. Penney, Sears, Montgomery Ward and Dillard’s are all upgrading or expanding at local malls, and independents Lester Melnick and Del Ann’s have opened boutiques in Fort Worth shopping centers.
The October 1987 opening of Grapevine Mills, a major outlet mall situated north of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, signaled the start of a rush to supply the burgeoning Fort Worth population with appealing shopping opportunities. Grapevine Mills has become popular, attracting shoppers from a large area of North Texas and beyond to cut-price merchandise at Off Fifth, Burlington Coat Factory and JCPenney, among others.
Tarrant County, which contains Grapevine, Fort Worth and various outlying suburbs, has only recently come to the attention of mall developers and retailers, who are recognizing the potential of the area’s growing population and expanding industry. New upscale housing developments, such as Southlake, have led to the creation of shopping centers with stores like Talbots, Gap and Banana Republic.
“The Texas customer is a tremendous shopper, and Fort Worth is important in the area market [and deserves its own stores],” said a Nordstrom spokeswoman at the company’s headquarters in Seattle. Nordstrom plans to open a 144,000-square-foot unit at North East mall in suburban Hurst next year.
“Things are happening in the Fort Worth economy,” said Mike Rosa, vice president of research and development at Forth Worth Chamber of Commerce, explaining that local industry has been expanding in traditional and high tech areas. American Airlines, Tandy/Radio Shack and Pier 1 are among the major companies based here, and Dillard’s department store has a regional headquarters in town. Also, the area has recently been named among the top in the country for concentration of new, high tech jobs. The booming economy has resulted in corresponding population growth.
“For years, the Fort Worth/Tarrant County area has been underserved by service suppliers, compared to markets of similar size, because of the proximity to Dallas — a major market. Historically, we’ve been underserved to the tune of about 3,000 or 4,000 service businesses,” Rosa said. But that’s all changing now.
Major recent developments, such as first-class horse racetrack the Lone Star Park in nearby Grand Prairie and the full-sized, Texas Speedway motor racetrack have led to a surge in retail and service industry interest in the area.
The new Bass Performance Hall, additions to the world-class Kimbel Art Museum and Amon Carter Museum of western art and the new building under construction to replace the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, are all adding to the luster of the city, which has developed a thriving downtown scene while Dallas’s street life has stagnated.
Population has soared and new businesses are opening to service all these transplants, according to Rosa.
“There’s a market of two million people west of the airport,” he said, referring to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which is locally seen as the border between the two cities.
“We’re starting to see a catch-up,” as Rosa puts it. “Fort Worth shoppers don’t need to go to Dallas anymore — all those stores are right here.”
Neiman Marcus has been in Fort Worth a long time, with the first store opening in 1963, according to Malcolm Reuben, senior vice president of stores.
“We moved into Ridgmar Mall in 1977, so we’re well established there, but we’re delighted at the news of all the new stores arriving,” Reuben said. “There’s definitely been a resurgence of retail in Fort Worth and Ridgmar Mall has recognized the need to create a vibrant atmosphere with its renovation plans.”
Neiman’s is doing its own refurbishment to complement the mall’s major makeover. Neiman’s sees its stores as destination sites for loyal customers, and although alternatives were considered, Ridgmar was recognized to be “the right mall, based on the demographics,” of the location and clientele, Reuben said.
New York-based Shopco, which recently acquired Ridgmar Mall, also saw the locale’s potential. The mall was originally built in 1976 and is a fixture in the community. Renovations began in fall1997. The addition of a Foley’s department store last November gave the mall five major department store anchors. A $60 million phase of renovations for the common areas was completed before last Christmas, the total project being slated for completion next summer.
“The mall’s been completely redesigned with similar stores grouped together and each entrance themed to the merchandise found there — women’s fashion; kids’ wear; men’s wear and sports; entertainment. There is a new, independently owned and operated building housing an 18-screen AMC theater on the roof, accessed through the mall’s court,” said Patricia West, general manager of Ridgmar.
When finished, the mall will cover more than 1.3 million square feet, according to leasing director Steven King.
“We’ve brought in a 22,000-square-foot Old Navy store and a 10,000-square-foot Gap/Gap Kids combo,” he added, along with sizeable Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer and Lerner New York stores.
“Fort Worth is a big city with a small-town feel,” said West, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t have sophisticated shoppers who like sophisticated stores. We’ve always had the edge over Dallas in culture.”
North East Mall in suburban Hurst also is in expansion mode. According to Connie Hasher, marketing manager for the mall, 300,000 square feet of new space is to be added for a total of 1.7 million square feet of retail space, at a cost of $200 million.
That will include a new, 100,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue store and the Nordstrom, both of which will open in 2000. Dillard’s will be vacating its two existing stores at North East to move into a new wing of the mall. The new Dillard’s, an expanded Penney’s and a renovated Montgomery Ward are all due to open by yearend.
The common areas of the mall are getting an extensive makeover “with new floors of gorgeous French limestone tile, a new, lighter roof treatment and all new decor,” enthused Hasher. Further, the expansion has spurred business development around the mall, including a new Toys “R” Us and a Big K, among others. A Super Target is expected to open next year about half a mile away.
North East Mall is the largest property tax payer in the city of Hurst, and mall management estimates that the expanded mall will increase employment in the area by more than 3,000 jobs.
Located between Ridgmar and North East malls is Hulen Mall, operated by The Rouse Co., Columbia, Md. While no expansion is currently under way, “it is in the foreseeable future,” according to general manager Clinton Lewis.
Rouse’s assistant director for public affairs, Nancy Tucker, added: “We’re in the internal approval stage. This area is definitely growing,” she noted, acknowledging that Rouse has closed some smaller centers, which failed to “dominate their market.” Hulen, however, “fits that upscale profile and will likely be expanded.” Nordstrom has plans for a new store there by fall 2002.
Nordstrom will open no less than four more stores in North Texas by then, having seen “a wonderful response to our store in Dallas’s Galleria,” said Brooke White.
“We feel there is a broad market expansion in the area, and we can find customers to support more than one store,” she said. Already, Nordstrom has a healthy customer base of Tarrant County residents who trek over to Dallas to shop.
Loyal Fort Worth customers of smaller specialty stores in Dallas have seen their patronage rewarded with more convenient local boutiques, too. Both Lester Melnick and Del Ann’s, catering to an upscale clientele, have opened in Fort Worth in the last year.
Melnick’s president, Leslie Diers, said the Dallas store always had Fort Worth clients.
“We had been looking for a space for a few years, but not intently. When this perfect location [in a neighborhood shopping center] came along, all the elements came together,” she explained.
Lester Melnick’s 5,000-square-foot store at a new center at Trinity Commons is smaller than the flagship in Dallas.
Del Ann’s Fort Worth store, at 900 square feet, is “tiny, but exclusive,” said buyer Sophie Fomin. Opened in January in a desirable spot by Ridglea Country Club, Del Ann’s has already become popular with a well-heeled clientele, many of whom previously shopped at its flagship in Dallas’s tony Snider Plaza.
In all, Tarrant County has 10 malls, and new shopping centers are sprouting rapidly. High-end retailers are populating pedestrian-friendly complexes, reflecting that “small town” atmosphere, right in the city.
It’s not likely that Fort Worth will be grabbing Dallas’s shopping mecca reputation anytime soon, but Fort Worth Chamber’s Mike Rosa believes the area “is crossing a threshold and moving up to a higher demographic class. It’s not an explosion, but it has momentum, and if you’re in retail, you can not afford to ignore the trend.”

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