BEHIND THE NEWS: Fashion Mall has the pull tolure most-prized anchors

Wo n d e r i n g who’ll fill the available anchor slot at The Fashion Mall at Keystone? Think pricey and plush.

The north-side mall is among the 100 top-performing malls in the United States, according to the investment firm Friedman Billings Ramsey. It already has many of the nation’s top upscale retailers-from Saks Fifth Avenue and Crate & Barrel to Tiffany and Restoration Hardware.

That says a lot. As Friedman Billings observes in a report, “The best indicator of drawing power for a mall is the number of leading, branded retailers.” Also notable: Within the mall’s main market area, the population is growing at a healthy clip, and the average household income is a robust $72,000.

So it’s a solid bet that the replacement for the soonto-shutter Parisian store at Fashion Mall will have at least as much sizzle. Nordstrom, which already operates a Circle Centre store catering partly to the convention crowd, could add a Fashion Mall outpost. Other possibilities: a Bloomingdale’s or Neiman Marcus.

Such luxury names are the envy of the mall industry.

Attracting any of them to a mall has a “strongly positive impact” on its drawing power, according to the “2006 Mall and Lifestyle Center Investors’ Handbook,” published by Virginia-based Friedman Billings.

Because of rapid consolidation among department stores in recent years, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus are the only major frou-frou chains left that aren’t already in the Indianapolis area.

Spokeswomen for Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom did not return calls or said they don’t talk about new stores until they have completed deals.

To be sure, the available slot has caught the attention of all three. After all, the shopping mall industry is mature, with only a smattering of new construction each year. Anchor slots in marquee malls don’t open often.

In this case, the spot’s in play only because of merger mania.

This fall, North Carolina-based Belk Inc. bought the 38-store Parisian chain from Alabama-based Saks Inc. for $285 million. A few weeks later, the Southern retailer said it would divest 11 stores, mostly in the upper Midwest.

Belk dealt the Circle Centre Parisian to Pennsylvania-based Bon-Ton Stores. The Fashion Mall location is one of seven Parisians that remain on the block.

A spokesman for locally based Simon Property Group Inc., The Fashion Mall’s owner, did not return calls.

Because Nordstrom’s already sold on the city, would it be most likely to pounce?

Retail brokers say it depends on how the Seattle-based company answers these questions: Is Indianapolis big enough for two stores? And would Parisian’s 128,000-square-foot footprint-less than three-quarters the size of its Circle Centre store-work with one of its existing store formats?

“Demographically speaking, it’s a home run. Locationally speaking, it’s a home run,” said veteran retail broker Mark Perlstein, a partner with The Linder Co., who isn’t privy to Nordstrom’s intentions.

As for Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, “I’m sure they have studied the market closely,” Perlstein said. Dallas-based Neiman and Bloomingdale’s, part of Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores, both have stores up Interstate 65 in Chicago.

Friedman Billings’ mall report classifies Fashion Mall as “dominant.” On the other end of the spectrum, it calls Simon’s Lafayette Square Mall a “wallflower” and its Washington Square Mall a “tortoise.” Malls in either category might struggle to replace a departing anchor, the report says.

Perhaps it’s notable that an anchor at both is Burlington Coat Factory. The report notes, “It is a poorly kept secret that Burlington Coat Factory … is sometimes known as the grim reaper of death since its presence can signal a mall that is well into a period of decline.”

Ex-extension execs cut deal

Two former executives of the Anderson-based Church Extension of the Church of God Inc. found to have defrauded investors out of more than $80 million have given up their fight to clear their names.

Perry Grubbs and Lou Jackson agreed to drop their appeal of a 2004 federal jury verdict after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission consented to a reduction in their financial penalties.

Federal Judge David Hamilton of Indianapolis this month approved the reductions. Grubbs, 65, will pay $119,500 instead of $164,500. Jackson, 70, will pay $62,000 instead of $127,000.

Church Extension sold notes to thousands of investors, telling them their money would be lent to congregations to build and renovate churches. Instead, according to the SEC, Grubbs and Jackson poured millions into high-risk ventures that flopped, then they concealed escalating financial woes.

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