(Photography by Don Kadair. Above: Joey Canella, senior adviser of commercial real estate brokerage with Sperry Van Ness | Graham, Langlois and Legendre.)
If retail follows population, it’s no surprise that two businesses—with long histories in Baton Rouge—moving down one road could spark debate about a city’s future.
In October, Kirk’s Tires and Accessories moved from 9555 Airline Highway to 11740 Airline Highway south of Interstate 12. In the same month, Salsbury’s Dodge, located at 9950 Airline Highway, reportedly also acquired land south of Interstate 12 and has plans to move within the next five years.
While these transplanting businesses represent only a fraction of the dozens of retailers along Airline Highway, north of Interstate 12 and south of the Cortana Mall, their movement tells a bigger story, says Joey Canella, a senior adviser of commercial real estate brokerage with Sperry Van Ness | Graham, Langlois and Legendre.
“People think this shift happened when Woman’s Hospital moved, but it started before then. It’s been coming for the last 20 to 30 years. As the population moves south down Airline and with the growth of the Prairieville area, retailers are looking at the demographics, traffic counts and traffic flow and planning accordingly,” Canella says. “With Kirk’s moving out, I think that part of Airline is going to look similar to what Florida Boulevard looks like. A higher vacancy. And I don’t think you will see a lot of development in that area.”
Florida Boulevard is now a hodgepodge of vacant buildings, generational family businesses, refurbished structures, a scattering of fast food restaurants and random car dealerships. But it wasn’t always that way.
Fifty years ago, Bon Marche on Florida was a retail hotspot and businesses surrounded the shopping mecca. However, it shuttered not long after Cortana Mall opened in 1976 and is now an office park. The Cortana Mall replaced Bon Marche as a shopping hub. It was centrally located between Florida Boulevard and Airline Highway and minutes from the heavily populated subdivisions, Sherwood Forest, Broadmoor and Tara. Car dealerships lined Florida Boulevard and Airline Highway, and Woman’s Hospital was located between it all.
But with the gradual decline of public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, along with available land and cheaper housing in the southern part of Baton Rouge and in Ascension and Livingston parishes, and the Mall of Louisiana opening in 1997, people began to move south and east, and big box retailers, restaurants and business followed. Cortana Mall is still open but is more of an inner-city shopping mall, lacking vibrant anchors and the suburban shoppers it once hosted. There are booming box stores in its perimeter, like Walmart; Sam’s Club; Bed, Bath and Beyond; and Old Navy, but there are also three shuttered restaurants with boarded-up windows that face Airline Highway.
When Woman’s Hospital announced plans to open a new location south of the Interstate on Airline Highway in 2012, retailers on north Airline Highway say they were nervous about the impact on business.
“I had a concern about business when Woman’s Hospital moved, but fortunately the police are going to be in that space so that’s good,” says Thomas Olinde, president of Olinde’s Furniture. “I think Airline Highway is becoming furniture row more than anything else, but we’re committed to being here. We like the location and the competition keeps us sharp and on our feet. I think the primary movement that you see south of the interstate is car dealerships. But I don’t see any immediate flight from anyone else.”
ALL ABOUT LOCATION
Olinde’s opened its Airline Highway store in 1986 and now runs 12 retail stores in southeast Louisiana, including eight Ashley Furniture Stores. However, more than 10 furniture stores sit in the north Airline corridor, including American Factory Direct Furniture Outlets, opening across from Olinde’s in the old Kirk’s space. Despite the competition, Olinde says he is happy with the Airline spot because of the great location, secure customer base, competitive prices, and high traffic counts.
“I’m not worried,” he says. “If you’re going to be a retailer, you’ve got to be optimistic. We have a lot of history here, and we’ve been here a long time. We could’ve opened this store on Essen, but we chose this location because we knew this was a better corridor and there’s more traffic here.”
According to the latest data from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the average daily traffic on Airline Highway south of Florida Boulevard was 66,419 in 2011, while the average daily traffic on Airline Highway north of Siegen Lane was 53,863 in 2011. While the traffic count is higher on Airline at the Florida Boulevard intersection, the traffic count on Airline Highway at the Siegen Lane intersection has increased by a higher percentage since 2008. Nearly 35% more cars were traveling along the southern area of Airline compared to 22% along the northern area of Airline.
Canella says retailers look at traffic counts, population and income data along with whether or not there is a demand for their product.
“It’s all about convenience,” Canella says. “People want to shop where it’s convenient, and if they can do that without sitting in traffic, they will. As business continues to grow, people in Prairieville will have more options and won’t have to come into Baton Rouge to shop.”
While the population is slightly higher within five miles of the Cortana Mall than it is within five miles of the new Woman’s Hospital, the average household income is greater for those living closer to Woman’s. According to data from the Economic Social and Research Institute, in 2014 there were 144,206 people with an average household income of $88,206 living within five miles of the new Woman’s Hospital, while 202,319 people with an average household income of $61,235 lived within five miles of the Cortana Mall. The average household income of people living within one mile of the Cortana Mall was $62,396—for people living within one mile of Woman’s Hospital, that figure jumps to $90,754.
“That’s a pretty significant difference in average household income and shows attractiveness of the south Airline area to business,” Canella says.
LAND OF REPURPOSE
Retail lease rates and sale prices in the north Airline Highway and Florida Boulevard Area are about half of what they are in the Siegen Lane, south Airline Highway area, Canella notes. Retailers can expect to pay double what they would in the North Airline Highway area. And that primarily has to do with population.
But local neighborhood leaders say North Airline business has continued to thrive, maybe not with new construction but through repurposing of buildings that are already there.
Gary Littlefield, chairman of the Broadmoor Crime Prevention and Improvement District, says he is not worried about the future of north Airline Highway because businesses moving out will be replaced with new business and the buildings will be repurposed.
“Anything that happens here or has been happening here has been very positive and good for our area,” says Littlefield of the 2,100-home subdivision that spans Airline Highway to Florida Boulevard. “From a commercial standpoint, people are always going to move from location to location.”
For instance, Party Time moved its location from the corner of Airline Highway and Old Hammond to Bluebonnet and Airline, and chain store Party City took over that space. In the last few years, Hammond Aire Shopping Center on the corner of Airline and Old Hammond Highway was remodeled and the storefronts were refurbished. Last year, Costco moved into a new building at the old Coca-Cola plant on Airline Highway.
Littlefield says while Cortana isn’t the most popular shopping center in town, he notes that big box retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond, Shoe Carnival and Old Navy continue to thrive. He acknowledges the growing population in the southeastern section of Baton Rouge, but says there is also a growing trend for young people who are frustrated with an increased commute time in Ascension Parish who are moving back to Baton Rouge and settling in established neighborhoods like Broadmoor, Tara and Sherwood Forest to raise their families.
“We have just as many young people and new people coming in as we do have old people moving out,” Littlefield says. “People who live here have a genuine desire to live in older established neighborhoods. There are enough residents around to support restaurants and businesses in this area.”