Selling Birmingham’s Downtown Shopping District

Julie Fielder has watched and learned the way shoppers shop, retailers sell and shopping centers function — or not. She’s visited — and shopped in — malls, downtown business districts, outlets and strip centers in the name of learning and serving her employers.

For many years Fielder leased the national portfolio for Taubman Cos., a behemoth of shopping center owners. About 18 months ago she went to work as the retail specialist for the Principal Shopping District of Birmingham. The new job as a consultant hired by a city has her changing tracks after 25 years focused primarily on indoor shopping malls and promoting a different kind of shopping center: Downtown Birmingham.

“The International Council of Shopping Centers now includes downtowns as shopping centers,” Fielder says. “There is a renewed interest, especially with baby boomers and millennials, to live and work in downtowns — and shop.”

The board of Birmingham’s Principal Shopping District, which functions somewhat like a Downtown Development Authority but is funded by fees paid by businesses and property owners rather than with captured taxes, hired Fielder to be a retail specialist charged with attracting national companies to what is probably metro Detroit’s toniest ‘burb.

If Fielder isn’t working phones and having lunches with national retail reps, she’s working with local property owners and storefront occupants, keeping tabs on who’s doing what and whose space might serve a national outfit she has her eye on. Her job is also to know retail trends and needs and to monitor the pulse of retailers around the country while watching what’s happening in her own back yard, with 1.5 million square feet of retail space, 300 retailers in the city, 2 million square feet of office space nearby, and a daytime population of 14,000 — and 5,000 parking spaces. There are 10,000 homes within walking distance of downtown. The Wall St. Journal named it the 5th most walkable suburb in the country in 2010.

Two nationals have taken up residence since November: Paper Source, a maker of high-quality stationery and paper products, and J. McLaughlin, a 35-year-old clothing and accessories store that specializes in classic looks in bold colors and prints and originated on New York’s Upper East side.

A crucial part of Fielder’s job is taking Birmingham’s show on the road, attending conferences, mostly hosted by the International Council of Shopping Centers. She was in New York for a regional conference last month and will soon begin arranging face-to-face meetings for the granddaddy of the ICSC’s conference coming in May in Las Vegas.

Metromode caught up with Fielder to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of competing with other cities for national companies’ attention and what’s working for and against Birmingham, Metro Detroit, and Michigan.

How different is marketing a downtown shopping district vs. a shopping mall?

I’m taking a similar approach. We’re marketing the downtown as an entity… That means meshing the needs of individual landlords, as opposed to one landlord, with the needs of the national retailers. Part of the process is making all the parties aware of the time frame for decision-making that needs to done to accommodate everyone.

Could downtown Birmingham’s high occupancy rate and the limitations of downtown space be detrimental for nationals who may need more options or elbow room?

It’s a good position to be in, but do you have enough space to work with? It’s always continuing to change as we lease one space and fill an additional space as it becomes available. With a million and a half square feet, it’s like the size of a major regional shopping center.

There’s such a reawakening to the virtues of downtown living that some cities are creating downtowns almost out of nothing in hopes of attracting those who want a round-the-clock, live-work hometown. Does Birmingham offer enough of that?

It’s funny you mention that. People are aware there is a trend that’s been going on for sometime now. There is a trend for baby boomers and millennials to live closer to a downtown area. They want a shorter commute to work. They want to have all the elements of living in a community with all the elements of living in downtown. They want a variety of stores and dining options, they want to be able to go to parks and have green space, have civic activities and go to the library, have things of that nature.

Birmingham is really the ultimate in that live/work mode. It achieves it very well.  It has been around 150 years. It’s an organic, true downtown… Some of these lifestyle properties have tried to emulate that…. An important difference for Birmingham is we have almost 10,000 homes within a walking distance of downtown. That’s an important part of attracting business.

What are Birmingham’s best selling points?

Well, the 10,000 homes is one of them. There are absolutely a lot of selling points and it’s kind of hard to summarize it. The top 6 or 8 things are high education levels, a wealthy community with significant disposable income, a commercial and office mix, well-located parking. The success of existing retailers is important too, the historic ambience, the longevity of the existing retailers.

The overall picture of Oakland County is a selling point. I think it’s 57 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 43 percent of global Fortune 500 that are represented in the county, and that makes a great pool of employment close by. The city is a major attraction for employers and it’s a major attraction for residents too. In downtown Birmingham itself there are major law firms and financial firms. There are high profile advertising and marketing firms and also high tech companies such as Google [AdWords].

What reservations or concerns about moving here do you hear when you’re pitching Birmingham, and really Michigan and Detroit, to outsiders?

I think some of the misconceptions are the state of the economy in Michigan. Particularly with the auto industry. It’s kind of cast a broader negative shadow that has included Birmingham. Fortunately there’s been some positive press in terms of the auto industry recently. Of course part of our message is explaining there are many other facets than the auto industry. The engineering and the high tech… the robotics that started in the auto industry has moved into medical…. advanced manufacturing… There’s alternative energy, homeland security. Film has been successful. Stars have come and stayed at the Townsend Hotel, right here in Birmingham. It’s why Travel & Leisure named Birmingham one of the top 10 coolest suburbs in the country.

How do you address outsiders’ long-held impressions about Detroit as a place that struggles with crime, education and unemployment, etc?

I think the image is getting better. I did get called by people who first saw the Super Bowl ad, the Chrysler Eminem ad. They called to say your guys are really cool. The Pure Michigan campaign is giving a more positive impression of Detroit and Michigan. In Michigan I think people realize it’s made up lots of different people…. Some areas are faring better than others … and that’s part of what they’ve asked me to do is to tell that story and show that picture to the retailers, show them that coming here is a good thing.

Kim North Shine is the development news editor for Metromode and a freelance writer.