Northside Residents Stress Need for Department Store; River City Marketplace Project Developer Says None Would Bite

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Byline: CHRISTOPHER CALNAN

The developer of the River City Marketplace wanted to talk last month about what his project included but local residents were interested in what it lacked -- a department store.

During a meeting with local residents, Joe Sutschek, vice president of development for Ramco-Gershenson Inc., gushed about the Northside retail center being the Michigan-based company's largest project ever.

The $323 million River City Marketplace is being built at Duval Road and Interstate 95. The mixed-use project includes retail such as a Wal-Mart Supercenter, restaurants, a hotel and a 14-screen movie theater. About 900 residential units are also planned by another developer on an adjacent 78-acre site.

The project's first phase is scheduled to open incrementally from April to September.

But at last month's meeting, Susan Ruffin, a former college administrator, wanted to know about a department store. Then another audience member asked Sutschek to reconsider the issue.

Sutschek said his company had negotiated with several department stores, including Kohl's, but none would bite. "Believe me," he said, "we've gone down the road a long way with these people."

Industry experts said there could be several reasons for the difficulty in attracting a department store to the project. Some said the area's density isn't great enough to meet most department store's requirements. Others say Wal-Mart combined with the area's income level may intimidate prospects.

Department store specialist Anne Brouwer, a partner with Chicago-based McMillan-Doolittle, said department stores generally don't mix well with big-box retailers, which are destinations for most shoppers. Such stores typically require expansive parking lots and shoppers don't walk or drive across the lots to visit a department store after shopping at the big-box store, she said.

Retail specialist Jeff Green said Wal-Mart is a factor.

Wal-Mart defines the shopping center's image, and the discount label isn't something that all retailers want, Green said.

"Department stores feel more comfortable being near Target than Wal-Mart because they feel Target brings in a more sophisticated customer than Wal-Mart," he said.

Ruffin, a nine-year resident of the Northlake subdivision, said last week she drives to The Avenues and the Orange Park Mall, and even Georgia for clothes shopping. …