Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Nordstrom loss not death knell for downtown

May 28, 2011

The news that Nordstrom Inc. will close its Circle Centre mall store July 31 is proof that the suburbs still rule where retail is concerned, but it shouldn’t signal a repeat of the gradual decline downtown suffered when merchants began leaving the city’s core in the 1950s.

It’s long been rumored that Nordstrom’s decision to become a Circle Centre anchor when the mall opened in 1995 was owed more to friendship than objective market analysis.

The late Melvin Simon and his brother, Herb, founders of Simon Property Group Inc., which manages Circle Centre, worked tirelessly with the city of Indianapolis to pull together the complicated deal to develop the mall that revived downtown retail.

Securing a high-end, anchor department store with no presence in the Indianapolis suburbs was a key piece of the puzzle. The Simons are said to have used their friendship with the Nordstrom family to get the department store chain to sign on the bottom line.

Sixteen years after it opened, Circle Centre is a draw for conventioneers, downtown workers and residents, and people who travel here from other parts of the state, but it’s not the only place you can find Nordstrom. A clause in the store’s downtown lease prohibiting it from opening another city location expired long ago, freeing the retailer to open a second Indianapolis store at the Fashion Mall at Keystone in 2008.

That store likely sealed the downtown Nordstrom’s fate. It should come as no surprise that 50 years after the downtown retail exodus began, consumers continue to favor suburban stores. Most people still live in the suburbs and shop close to home. And the city’s greatest concentration of wealth is on the north side, close to the Fashion Mall, making it a magnet for Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and other high-dollar retailers. The Circle Centre Nordstrom was no match for that batch of heavyweights.

But, unlike decades ago, downtown has its own appeal now. Sparkling sports and convention venues, restaurants for every taste, appealing neighborhoods, one of the state’s largest universities, pedestrian-friendly streets and a host of other attractions still beckon visitors—and retailers.

Nordstrom’s departure doesn’t follow a pattern. Most retailers that have left downtown in recent years fell victim to companywide woes. Border’s, for example, which closed its downtown store earlier this year—along with stores in Carmel and at Keystone—is shrinking across the board as traditional books fall out of favor with consumers.

When downtown retailers leave, others move in. For example, Jos. A. Bank, the men’s clothier, is preparing to open a store near Washington and Meridian streets.

The challenge for Simon and city officials is to find a tenant for the Nordstrom space that fits downtown’s broad demographic and doesn’t detract from its image. It’s a safe bet that whatever comes next won’t sell luxury goods, but downtown’s many assets should make the job of finding a replacement much less daunting than in decades past.•

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