Mixing Uses for a Winning Retail Strategy with RaCo Real Estate’s Ralph J. Conti

by Camren Skelton

Ralph J. Conti, principal and managing member of Atlanta-based RaCo Real Estate, is a development partner on Celebration Pointe, a 1-million-square-foot, mixed-use development in Gainesville, Florida. The 160-acre project includes office and residential components, along with a barrage of retail, restaurant and entertainment offerings that continue to roll out on a regular basis.

Retail Insight sat down with Conti recently to discuss the future of retail development and whether we will see more mixed-use projects with diversified retail offerings in the near future.

How can shopping center landlords and tenants work in unison to create the type of retail experience the customer now craves?

Unlike years past, developers and landlords can no longer heavily rely on retailers alone to hone in on what it will offer its customer base. In all successful centers, landlords and retailers almost always forge a partnership, so to speak, to deliver the best experience to all guests and consumers. The retailer does what it does best, which is to deliver product to its customer as effectively as possible. We don’t ever interfere with that.

What I view as my job and the job of our asset management and marketing folks is to continually educate ourselves regarding tenants’ customers. The more we know about our tenant and their customer profile, the more we can tailor our own programs to help drive traffic. The only way I can see on-going success in brick-and-mortar retail real estate is by landlords and tenants forging early partnerships where the parties engage in understanding each other’s needs and goals. I truly believe that the days of ‘just being a merchant’ and ‘just being a coupon-clipping landlord’ are all but over if you want a successful center.

How can creative programming events really set a shopping center apart from your standard mall Santa or concert in the park?

I don’t think anyone will ever get tired of Santa; it’s a staple of our society. That said, even the Santa train must evolve. First and foremost, you must plan well in advance — in the very early stages of a new development — if you seriously intend to host events at your new center. If it becomes an after-thought because you feel it’s the only way to keep your center competitive, you may experience some very practical problems when it comes to executing these various events. This to me is just plain common sense. If you acquire a center that is not really set up to host certain events, then, indeed, you have to adjust to whatever is in the best interest of the property.

By way of example, events are a significant part of our operating business plan at Celebration Pointe, a large-scale, mixed-use project that we our intimately involved with in Gainesville, Florida. We baked certain design elements into the plan early on so as to address future events. That means taking a hard look at how to address public gathering spaces. We also were fortunate to secure an open container policy which is huge in an environment such as Celebration Pointe. To me, the key to hosting events at any center is to develop a succinct base-line plan, it should not be just a reaction to competing with other centers; I advocate using professional event planners, this is a special skill set and most industry folks simply are not equipped to handle it on an on-going basis; also we must think carefully about the types of events (recurring, one and done, etc.) and how those events impact tenants and community; seek sponsorships, a great way to extend one’s brand; and lastly, seek advice by people who have done it. Events not only distinguish one property from another, but they add can significant value if handled properly.

Two prevalent trends we’re seeing more of nowadays is the need for convenience and an increase in mixed-use projects. Do you think these two items are correlated as retail offerings move to become more one-stop shops?

I agree that convenience is very important. People generally want to make the most out of what little discretionary time they have. However, I can’t say with any degree of certainly that there is an absolute and direct correlation between convenience and mixed-use . When I think convenience in terms of retailing, I think driving right up to the retailer’s front door, walking in, buying what I need and leaving. Essentially, “commodity shopping.”

When I think mixed-use, I think of a well-thought-out and well-executed asset that offers sustainability, architecture, lifestyle, diversity and, yes, convenience as well. Consumers are far and away more focused on exactly what they want in terms of a shopping experience and convenience is clearly one of those demands. By way of example, a great mixed-use project delivers diversity of product (live, work, shop, dine, entertainment, hospitality) all in one single, well-planned and walkable location. It’s hard to argue that a great mixed-use property doesn’t address the “convenient” factor for sure.

Your newest project, Celebration Pointe, is rolling out retailers as we speak. How did you design and tenant the retail portions of this larger project to usher Celebration Pointe into the next brick-and-mortar shopping experience?

We are very excited about Celebration Pointe. It’s been a labor of love for everyone involved. As for the center’s design, that has been and, quite frankly, continues to be quite the process, indeed. This is a mixed-use project of more than one million square feet containing retail, dining, entertainment, hospitality, Class A office and various residential offerings. I think you need to be careful in the design of mixed-use in that you don’t want a monolithic-looking property, it needs to have character and promote a certain brand. Each segment of a mixed-use project has its own distinct brand, which transfers into design themes and perhaps vice versa. The design elements at Celebration Pointe arose from hours of collaborative and sometimes contentious discussion and debate between ourselves, with tenants and with government agencies. And, by the way, add hours upon hours of tweaking, so having a collaborative and patient group of design consultants doesn’t hurt!

We just opened what we call City Walk Phase 1, our Main Street component, and have been getting some “wow, this is gorgeous” comments. That statement in and of itself put a smile on all our faces. Many, many talented people had a hand in preparing and delivering the planning, design and construction, which includes the all-important landscape and hardscape plan. As for the tenanting, we spent many hours researching the trade area and beyond. We spent a great deal of time talking with and seeking advocacy and support with retailers, tenant representatives and market research specialists. We examined empirical data and literally turned over every possible rock to prepare a solid and sustainable merchandizing game plan. All mixed-use projects are driven by a key asset class. In our case, retail is the driver for sure. It is the heart and soul of the project; screw that up and it’s game over.

When fully built out, which we think will occur in the next couple of years, we hope Celebration Pointe will be viewed as a gold standard for addressing many of the intricacies of delivering a highly sustainable and successful mixed-use destination.

This article originally appeared in the Retail Insight newsletter by Shopping Center Business. This is a six-week publication created in conjunction with our content partners, which sponsor the newsletter, leading up to ICSC RECon and including post-conference coverage. Click here to subscribe.

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