Biltmore makes room for small, local retailers

When shoppers think of Biltmore Fashion Park, they most likely think of luxury department stores, such as the state’s only Saks Fifth Avenue, or high-end national chains, such as Williams Sonoma.

But the center’s owner has launched an effort to put more focus on small, local retailers and offer customers a unique boutique experience.

Owner Macerich will open the Union at the Biltmore, near 24th Street and Camelback Road, in November. Project managers have worked on the concept — which provides smaller spaces for these businesses — for nearly a year.

Four locally owned independent boutiques — Whoopie Baking Company,Citrine Natural Beauty Bar, Paris Envy and Frances — recently announced they will open locations at the Biltmore.

“We have about 18 (retail) spaces total, and we have 11 of the leases signed and the rest are in negotiation,” said Karen Litton,Biltmore senior property manager. “We’re in really good shape,”

Union will have space for a dozen 200- to 500-square-foot shops. The project also will house six smaller kiosks with one small restaurant and a coffee shop.

The stores will be on the east end of the shopping center between Stingray Sushi and restaurant Season 52.

Litton says local small businesses have responded well to the opportunity to be a part of the project.

“One of Biltmore’s competitive advantages is its mix of national, regional and local retailers, and so we thought, ‘How can we do more of the one-of-a-kind shops?’ and this is what they came up with,” she said.

While Litton said several businesses moving to Union already have stores in Phoenix, many of them likely would not have been able to afford the rent at the Biltmore apart from this project.

“If they’re renting 200 square feet, it’s certainly going to be less than making a commitment to a 10-year lease that is 1,000 to 2,000 square feet or larger. It gives them an opportunity to be in a great location and to start a business or to continue their business,” she said.

The Biltmore has expanded during the economic downturn because the recession did not hit its client base as hard, Litton said.

“Biltmore Fashion Park is strong, and we’ve been one of the original luxury centers for some time, and we have some very strong players here, so even though the economy is challenging right now, we certainly are doing very well in the center,” she said.

Frances owner Georganne Bryant hopes to benefit from the Biltmore name, but mainly wants to reach a customer who wouldn’t usually have wandered into her shop on Central Avenue and Camelback Road. Frances sells gifts and clothing for men, women and children.

“I was looking to expand, and I really love Phoenix, and they approached me with the project and it just seemed like a perfect fit,” she said. “It’s just kind of a different traffic area and a different location.”

She plans to use her Union location to draw customers to her larger shop, which will carry items not found at the Biltmore location.

“It’ll be like, ‘If you like this (the 500-square-feet shop), you’ll love this (the 2,000-square-feet shop),” she said.

Another attractive part of the move: The Union entrepreneurs will mix with larger, more well-known retailers.

“That will be great energy,” she said. “… Being in a mall like the Biltmore that is centrally located and has a lot of traffic, that’s really exciting and will bring more exposure for our businesses.”

Arizona’s small-business community leaders said the Union project could encourage other malls to increase their relationships with small businesses.

“I think it’s just an absolute fantastic idea to carve out a large space for several smaller businesses,” said Kimber Lanning, executive director of Local First Arizona, a Phoenix-based nonprofit representing small businesses.

“We’re starting to see these types of projects in adaptive re-use situations, meaning what are we going to do when big boxes fail and how are we going to fill them?”

Because Union isn’t filling an open space, and the Biltmore is a desirable location, the project does not have the sense of desperation to find tenants that some other projects seem to, she said.

“This is the first time I’ve seen (adaptive re-use) in a vibrant setting where there are already tons of businesses and customers introducing them to independent-concept stores they can’t see anywhere else,” said Lanning, who was a consultant for the project.

Valley residents will respond well to Union as long as developers listen to what the buyers want, Lanning said.

“I think all the national polls are showing that more and more people are thinking about shopping locally,” she said.

“I think people are looking for a unique experience. There’s a lot of people out there that are tired of the same old, same old.”

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About Michael Gossie

Michael Gossie is an award-winning journalist who has earned more than 50 awards for writing, editing and design. He studied economics at Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y., and put his entrepreneurial spirit to work in 2007, using a 200-year-old family recipe to launch an Italian sauce company. He is a competitive marathon runner, Ironman triathlete and is most proud of being the founding president of the Steuben Arc Foundation in Upstate New York, which serves individuals with developmental disabilities, including his sister.