Economic Development

The Retail Chase Q&A: Cynthia Stewart

Cynthia Stewart is director of community relations for the International Council of Shopping Centers. That makes Stewart something of a liaison between local government and...
by | March 31, 2007

Cynthia Stewart is director of community relations for the International Council of Shopping Centers. That makes Stewart something of a liaison between local government and the retail development industry. I talked with her about why so many local officials now make the pilgrimage to ICSC's annual convention in Las Vegas and what they should expect when they get there.

--Governing Associate Editor Christopher Swope

What is the International Council of Shopping Centers?

We're the global trade association for retail real estate development. In 50 years, we've gone from ten shopping center developers in a room to 65,000 members around the globe. That includes developers, retailers, contractors, real estate attorneys, architects, planners, economic development officials, mayors, city council members, environmental engineers -- anybody who has a stake in retail real estate development is a member of ICSC.

Why is ICSC's annual convention in Las Vegas such a big deal?

The primary reason most folks belong to ICSC is for networking and deal making opportunities. Other conferences I'm familiar with are mostly about professional education and networking --and we do some educational sessions. But people out there are trying to get deals done. Something between 25 and 35 percent of all shopping center leases are either signed or conceived at our spring convention. You don't work this meeting like any other conference or convention you go to. It's business, business, business. The companies take huge contingents and they have their appointments made four to six months before they get there. Their calendars are pretty full.

Why are so many local officials making the trip?

The public sector is one of the fastest growing segments of our membership. We have 4,000 public sector members. One reason for that is just word of mouth among elected officials and economic development professionals -- they've discovered there's one place they can go and meet all these retailers and developers. The other thing is that in the last 10 to 15 years, cities have gotten more proactively involved in trying to plan for the needs of their communities, rather than just letting development happen to them.

I've heard that this convention can be pretty overwhelming for first-timers. What do local officials need to know about how to work it?

One of the biggest mistakes they make is that they haven't done their homework -- they don't have a keen sense of how the retail development process works. So they come with bundles of Chamber of Commerce promotional information that, frankly, people aren't going to lug home in their suitcases. Bring business cards and maybe a one-page fact sheet.

You've got to have a market assessment. Know what the community has, what it needs, and what kind of leakage there is of citizens shopping in other cities. There's a lot to look at. A lot of mayors come to this through a back door. They're at a council meeting and someone comes up to them and says, "You know what this town needs? A Trader Joe's." But then they go try and engage Trader Joe's without doing a market assessment first. You need that keen sense, that maybe you won't get a Trader Joe's, but you might get a Publix or some other high-end grocery store. That's why doing your homework is important.

Especially for elected officials, this convention might be a little difficult. They're just one of the other guys out on the floor, all vying for the attention of the retailers. The retailers are the prima donnas. They're the stars of the show.

What other mistakes do local officials tend to make in Vegas?

Making promises they can't keep. When a mayor says, "Oh, we have great sites and we can partner with you on deals and do gap financing," but it takes the full city council to get approval for those things. If your city hasn't gone through a visioning process such that you have a keen sense that this is an area where you're investing some resources, then you shouldn't make promises.

If it's your first time at the convention, don't have unrealistic expectations about what you can accomplish. It's such a big meeting. It's very difficult to explain to people how big it is and how massive the crowds can be. I hear it all the time, that someone made it to one appointment but missed the next one because he had no idea how far it was to get there. Study the map to get a sense of where things are located in the Leasing Mall before you get out there.

Don't be vain -- bring your tennis shoes. Don't be wearing high heels. You'll be doing a lot of walking.


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