Former Duke retail executive ready for first solo project: Schembre preparing to break ground on $15M Lawrence Commons

April 28, 2008

A former Duke Realty Corp. executive who hung up her own shingle last year is close to breaking ground on her first project.

Cindy Schembre, 49, launched Via Retail Development LLC in January 2007 and is negotiating with tenants and closing on the purchase of 11 acres at 56th Street and Mitthoeffer Road. The $15 million project, known as Lawrence Commons, is an 80,000-square-foot neighborhood center that is slated to break ground in June.

The development includes a 45,000-square-foot anchor that is in the final stages of contract talks, as well as five lots for restaurants and small shops. The property sits along major thoroughfare Pendleton Pike, which just received $27 million in road upgrades, and is in a prime area.

Lawrence officials have targeted Pendleton Pike from Interstate 465 northeast to Sunnyside Road as their first redevelopment corridor.

Schembre found the property while scouting locations for her first development and became so enamored with it that she signed a contract in July to purchase the land from fellow developer Mann Properties. Investment and traditional bank financing are funding the cost of the project, which is small compared to the typical 500,000-square-foot developments she led at Duke. Yet, she has no qualms about her decision to leave the publicly traded Indianapolis-based company.

"While I had great opportunities at Duke," she said, "being able to make some of those decisions without worrying about Wall Street's reaction, and take more risks, is what I was looking for."

The former Barnes & Thornburg LLP lawyer launched her real estate career in 1996 when she joined Duke, the city's largest commercial developer, as a corporate attorney. In 2003, Schembre succeeded Larry Myrvold as senior vice president of retail and was responsible for site selection and plan creation, anchor tenant leasing and oversight of construction activities.

Working with national retailers such as Target, Lowe's and Best Buy, she was instrumental in establishing a company record $245 million of new development starts in 2006.

At Duke, Schembre became the first female vice president and is

among a select number of women developers. Donna Hovey, vice president of retail sales and leasing at the local office of Los Angeles-based CB Richard Ellis, and former colleague at Duke, said she is certain she'll succeed.

"She's a good advocate for women in the business," Hovey said. "It's a pretty risky business. But I think in Cindy's case, in particular, she's proving that it's not impossible to do it."

Indeed, it's even riskier now, regardless of one's gender. The credit crunch that fueled the subprime lending fiasco is starting to affect commercial projects and making it difficult to finance deals.

Although banks are skittish about financing large and creative loans, Schembre said, they still can be done if a project is fundamentally sound. The market is weaker than it was a year ago, she acknowledged, but central Indiana is affected less than other parts of the country because the volatility in land prices is less severe.

Still, the tepid economy seems to be taking its toll on local merchants, and even on those at upscale Clay Terrace in Carmel. Among the retailers that have closed there in recent weeks are scrapbooking store Memoirs, Kid's Corner, Bombay and Circuit City.

Clay Terrace owner Simon Property Group Inc. developed Hamilton Town Center with local partner Gershman Brown & Associates near the Exit 10 interchange on Interstate 69. The official May 2 opening of the 950,000-square-foot outdoor shopping mall, coupled with the expansive amount of retail space popping up along State Road 37 in Fishers, may make it seem as though the north side is becoming oversaturated.

Schembre, however, begs to differ. While she admitted being a bit worried about Clay Terrace's performance, the uneasiness has subsided to the point she's confident the mall will rebound from the latest vacancies.

On the northeast side, room for growth remains, Schembre said, despite the rapid development. Project completions may take longer than expected, but they will get finished, she predicted.

For her part, Schembre is looking to finalize another land contract and is interested in branching out of Indiana into other parts of the Midwest. Her relationship with Sitehawk Retail Real Estate, a locally based retail leasing broker, could help her accomplish the goal.

Sitehawk provides space for Schembre's firm at its Keystone Crossing office and is the leasing agent for her Lawrence project. Despite the fragile lending environment, Mark Perlstein, a Sitehawk partner, is confident about Schembre's future.

"Let's face it, anybody right now in the development business has to be extremely careful," he said. "It's a tough time, but she's a tough girl and she's going to weather through it. She has good relationships and good contacts."

Schembre also has partnered with Rebecca Dixon, a former senior designer and assistant partner at the local architectural firm of Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf Inc. The veteran architect who worked on the designs of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Herron School of Art led the conceptual design of Lawrence Commons.

The two met as participants of the Stanley K. Lacy Executive Leadership Series four years ago and became friends.
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