Cobb retailers expect to score from Braves move



The Atlanta Braves move to Cobb County won’t happen for another three years, but the area’s retailers are already anticipating a surge in business.

Business leaders in the Cumberland area, which will be home to a planned $672 million ballpark and adjacent $400 million mixed-use project of shops, bars and apartments, said they have experienced a boon in interest from retailers since the Braves relocation announcement in early November, including calls from restaurant, hotel and clothing store operators.

The increased interest comes at a time when the area was already showing signs of an upswing.

Cumberland Mall, one of the metro area’s oldest shopping centers, underwent a restaurant facelift in 2006 with the addition of Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano’s Little Italy and Stoney River Legendary Steaks. The eateries re-invigorated the 40-year-old mall, which has since attracted upscale clothier Michael Kors, is getting a Sephora beauty outlet and possibly an Apple store down the road.

Likewise, Akers Mill Square, a nearby shopping center, has re-invented itself with major restaurant chains, such as Zoe’s Kitchen, Corner Bakery and an expanded LongHorn Steakhouse, to take advantage of new visitors lured to the area by performances at the Cobb Energy Center just around the corner.

“The resurgence of retail was happening prior to the Braves announcement,” said Tad Leithead, board chairman of the Cumberland Community Improvement District. “The performing arts center (which opened in 2007) was a stepping stone for us, a catalyst, and the Braves will be one, too.”

It won’t be a cake walk. For every Akers Mill Square, there are dozens of dated strip malls up and down Cobb Parkway that haven’t been touched by the retail fairy. And Cobb Galleria Centre, one of the first shopping centers many conventioneers and tourists may encounter, is struggling at 55 percent vacancy.

The Braves move itself also remains shrouded in controversy. Several groups have decried the use of taxpayer money to partially fund the stadium, and others have said the project will create a bigger traffic nightmare in an already-congested part of metro Atlanta.

In addition, many wonder why the giddy talk of a retail explosion in Cobb never materialized in downtown Atlanta near the Braves current home at Turner Field.

The retail industry also is going through its own transformation, thanks to online shopping, industry experts said. Gone are the days when ubiquitous stores such as The Gap, Claire’s or Bath & Body Works could be counted on as automatic tenants. With online shopping increasingly taking a larger chunk of consumer spending, brick-and-mortar retailers have slimmed down store locations to maximize profits.

Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst for New York-based NPD Group, said retailers will closely examine foot traffic, not only when the Braves are playing at the new stadium, but when the team is on the road and during the off-season. They will be looking for efforts like those at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn or Petco Park in San Diego, where office and residential development made retail expansion make sense.

“You have to have infrastructure — hotel rooms, restaurants,” he said. “Stadiums can no longer be one-dimensional.”

The Braves plan to spend $400 million on just that. The team said it wants a mixed-use project that will include restaurants, apartments and bars. The idea is to create an entertainment district that can drive business year-round, as well as a residential community. A pedestrian bridge could link the project with the Galleria across I-285.

Leithead said overall residential growth is booming in the Cumberland area. Around 11,000 apartments are under construction in the area and another 1,000 or so are on the drawing board.

Cumberland also is one of the state’s most dense office areas with more than 100,000 jobs, he said.

Sasannah Kinsey, a broker at Sterling Risk Advisors, said she expects the Braves move to be the excuse many owners of shopping centers along Cobb Parkway need to up their game.

“This is going to be a good opportunity for developers to reposition their properties, including getting better tenants,” she said.

The move also may be the shot in the arm that Cobb Galleria Centre needs. Michelle Swann, general manager and chief executive officer of the convention and shopping destination, said the Galleria’s loss in 2003 of the AMC movie chain there was a tremendous blow to retailers.

Since the Braves announcement, however, Swann has seen a spike in calls from retailers that are taking a second look at the struggling center and hopes that one of them might be a theater chain interested in revitalizing the Galleria’s movie house.

“It really depends on the operator” and the potential they see, she said.

Leila Prioleau, owner of Cobb Galleria jewelry store Beads on the Vine, said she believes the Braves relocation will be the catalyst the shopping center needs. She chose to locate her store in the Galleria because the shopping center is centrally located and has reasonable rent, two considerations that will be attractive to other retailers.

To help the business thrive, she has used social media and worked with the convention center to make sure she connects with trade shows whose members are potential customers. And she believes the Braves will help attract move visitors.

“My business is meeting my expectations,” said Prioleau, who celebrated her first year in business Dec. 19. “I would love to see more foot traffic.”