The opening of Prove Towne Centre mall will have a major impact on other businesses in Utah Valley, but primarily as a part of the growing trend of change in Provo’s retail industry.
Provo Mayor Lewis Billings said he thinks the new stores built this year at Provo Towne Centre and The Riverwoods shopping complex have already changed the retail dynamics of Utah County and the entire state. Introduction of upscale stores like Dillard’s, as well as Abercrombie and Fitch, whose only Utah location is at the Riverwoods complex, gives Provo “destination retail” and the ability to offer a unique shopping experience, he said.
And that, according to Billings, guarantees a strong consumer draw that benefits all the stores in the area.
“While people used to say `Let’s go to Salt Lake City and shop,’ now they’re going to say, `Let’s go to Provo city and shop,'” Billings said. “And maybe they just go straight to Abercrombie and Fitch, but they also stop at four or five other stores along the way.”
Abercrombie and Fitch men’s manager James Starr said he thinks their store is the only one in the area with a statewide appeal. He said 60 to 70 percent of the store’s weekday business comes from outside Utah County. On Sundays, that percentage is even higher.
“I imagine that if they had a store open in Salt Lake, our business would really decrease,” he said. “Location-wise, we’re pretty isolated and that gives us a big advantage as far as drawing customers from other areas.”
Concern has been voiced that Provo’s economy, despite the constants of a BYU consumer base and a burgeoning suburban population, cannot support the retail needs of an enterprise as big as Provo Towne Centre. But Billings said the phenomenon of incoming business strongly suggests that it can.
“I don’t see this as the pie being the same size with more stores suddenly fighting for the business. I think the retail pie is getting larger,” Billings said.
Even if the new stores won’t hurt the city economy overall, they may pose a problem to individual enterprises, especially family-owned-and-operated stores and retailers in the downtown area.
Shops along Center Street near the city center have been struggling since the city voted against building a mall downtown in 1967.
The mall proposal was turned down because the city wanted to preserve the downtown area as a location for Provo’s older, historical, family-owned small businesses, Billings said. Within 10 years, however, many of the shops were sinking as shoppers opted for the convenience of malls.
“I think the small family business is something you want to encourage, and you want to hope that it will continue to exist. But it’s very competitive,” Billings said.
A high city priority has been preserving the economic functionality of the downtown area as it shifts from hosting small businesses to housing government and office space.
The Provo Municipal Council spent $2.7 million to that end in September when it purchased the Sears store and land on Freedom Boulevard and 100 North. The city’s purchase enabled Sears to move to the new mall, filling the desperately-needed third-anchor store slot along with Dillard’s and JC Penney, and kept a way open for the city to turn the land into parking or office space as downtown growth warrants.
“I think downtown is already becoming a business/professional area and I think it will continue to become more so. We’ll have a center for finance, a center for government, a center for legal, a professional services corridor with restaurants and specialty shops and a convention business,” Billings said.
For the time being, the city rents the old Sears building to R.C. Willey, which will open a slightly-damaged and discontinued furniture outlet store on the site in late November.
Provo Municipal Council Executive Director Ted Dowling said the R.C. Willey store fills the downtown’s need for continued commercial traffic.
“You do need some kind of retail downtown, and this is a good location for an R.C. Willey-type business. It fits their needs very well,” Ted Dowling, executive director of the Provo Municipal Council, said.