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Retail businesses eye Hall for expansion
Shops pull in more tax dollars
Team member Debra Hampton checks out customer Shar Baxter at the Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts on Dawsonville Highway in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Coming Thursday

A look at the housing market in Hall County.

After years of closings and empty lots in the retail sector, Hall County is seeing a fresh crop of retail stores.

"It seems like all the nooks and crannies are being filled," said Tim Evans, the vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

And Evans is optimistic about the future of retail in Hall County despite the Dow Jones' 634-point drop Monday, he said.

"I'm encouraged by what we've seen so far and I hope that we continue to keep things moving in the economy," he said.

During the darkest ruts of the recession, Hall County was in step with the rest of the country in terms of sluggish retail.

"Beginning in 2008, nationally retailers stopped signing leases, and we saw very little activity from 2008 to 2009," Evans said.

But now retail is picking up quick, particularly along Dawsonville Highway near McEver Road. This year there have been eight major national stores settling nearby, including an Olive Garden restaurant that employs more than 150 workers, Evans said.

Many of those positions available are part-time and perfect for underemployed teens and young adults looking for work, he added.

"We had and still have in Georgia one of the highest unemployment rates for teenagers," Evans said.

There are other new national retailers as well, and too many new local retailers to count, he added.

"These little places just pop up overnight and there's some of them that are just absolute gems ... we've had a lot of good retail growth and that's encouraging to see," he said.

TriVest Real Estate owner Tim Knight organized the deal for Olive Garden, which opened June 20, and Cheddar's Casual Cafe, scheduled to open at the end of this month.

Knight said Olive Garden has been doing "extremely well," and Cheddar's has received hundreds of employment applications.

Knight counted more than 160,000 square feet of retail space taken up in just the past year.

"This market has done extremely well compared to the rest of the country, and I think it's a function of the fact that this market is under-retailed somewhat," he said.

After the economy bottomed out and some retailers had left Hall County, others retailers saw a prime opportunity to stake their claim, Knight added.

Knight is talking to four retailers, three national and two restaurants, and hopes to sign at least one of them to a contract in the next 90 days.

"The interest level is very high," he said.

Coyote Management L.P. in Texas bought Lakeshore Mall in September and has spent more than six months and $50,000 to spiff it up, said Kymberley Scalia, the company's corporate director of marketing.

Coyote Management officials are talking to national and regional retailers and have hired a leasing agent specifically to attract new retailers in Lakeshore Mall.

The company's officials decided to purchase the mall in September because of its proximity to Lake Lanier and lack of competition from other malls.

"The closest competition is the Mall of Georgia, so we're the only game in town," Scalia said.

Lakeshore Mall has seen a 6 percent year-to-date increase in sales, with one jewelry store boasting a 70 percent increase in sales in June alone.

Scalia said increases in the sales of luxury items like jewelry, lingerie and boutique bath and body products indicate that shoppers are splurging more.

There are also more shoppers visiting several stores in one trip.

"We're definitely seeing an increase in traffic. I think people are starting to feel like the economy's coming back," she said.

Michael's, an arts and craft store, The Chidren's Place and cosmetics store Ulta opened last year on Dawsonville Highway.

Now Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts and Aldi, a grocery store, have taken a spot that was previously filled by a Goody's clothing store that closed down on Dawsonville Highway. Aldi opened in March.

Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts is having its grand opening on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The store opened to the public on July 29.

Jo-Ann Fabrics team member Debra Hamptom said the first day "was like Black Friday" for sewing enthusiasts.

She added the store is the best location from here to the Tennessee border.

"We're planning to draw from a large area," Hampton said.

Team member Cynthia Coburn said she expects business will pick up after the grand opening.

"It's been pretty steady busy ... I'm sure it's gonna get a lot busier," said Coburn, who was cutting fabric for customer Jeanne Rish.

Rish owns a quilt shop in Dawsonville and relies on Jo-Ann Fabrics for some of her supplies.

"I'm a fabric-aholic," she said.

Evans said new shops like Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts can attract shoppers from neighboring counties, pulling in tourism and tax dollars to fund local projects.

"The more we grow our high-end retail and our independent retail owners, it makes us a unique shopping destination, so it increases our attractiveness as a tourism destination for shopping. ... All those sales tax dollars that are generated here every time that you shop locally, they stay here."

In Flowery Branch, a 500,000-square-foot retail location at Stonebridge Village attracts shoppers with car tags from Habersham, Stephens and White counties, Evans said.

"Clearly there are people from throughout the region that were probably driving past Flowery Branch a few years ago to shop at the Mall of Georgia and now they're ... shopping here before they head back home," he said. "That's added sales tax that supports our schools and our infrastructure."