Dubuque still trying to plug retail holes

A vacant storefront awaits new tenants at Kennedy Mall in Dubuque after Gap's exit earlier this year.

One year after a study showed that local residents spend millions of dollars on retail purchases outside of Dubuque each year, many of the largest gaps in the market have yet to be filled.

In some cases, those challenges might have been worsened due to the recent closures of businesses such as Gap in Dubuque and the coming closure of MC Sports.

Still, local economic development leaders remain confident that efforts to attract new retailers are gaining steam.

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"There is momentum building," said Mark Seckman, vice president of national marketing with Greater Dubuque Development Corp. "It might not show up today as far as new retailers building facilities in the market, but we have gotten to the point where we are getting retailers interested."

RETAIL LEAKAGE

Dubuque's retail needs were underscored in March 2015, when a study by Alabama-based advisory group Retail Strategies assessed local "retail leakage." That occurs when consumers leave their own community to purchase goods or services elsewhere.

The report found large retail leakage in multiple categories.

About $26 million that could be been spent at Dubuque department stores each year instead is spent elsewhere, according to the report.

Retail leakage at full-service restaurants totals $14.4 million per year; family clothing stores, $13.5 million; sporting goods stores, $12.3 million; and women's clothing stores, $6 million, according to the report.

Joe Strauss, director of retail development for Retail Strategies, said he is collaborating with Greater Dubuque Development to reach out to new retailers and promote the Dubuque area.

Strauss said many prospective retailers have been impressed with the city's "trade area," a term that refers to the broader area from which businesses can draw customers. Last year's Retail Strategies report found 130,000 people reside within a 10-mile radius, as the crow flies, of downtown Dubuque, a number significantly larger than the city's population.

Still, most retail deals take time to materialize and progress does not come immediately, Strauss said.

"It takes awhile for retail to come to an area," he said. "There are a lot of boxes to check, a lot of things that have to be put into place."

STOREs' STRUGGLES

Efforts to attract department stores have been complicated by the conservative approach of many national retailers, Strauss said.

"Some are closing stores and looking to restrategize. Others are going toward a smaller footprint," he said. "Nationally, a lot of the bigger department stores have been stagnant."

Seckman noted that demographics sometimes can deter companies from considering Dubuque.

"Von Maur is a great example, where a lot of people think that would be great for the Dubuque market," he said. "We are not even on their radar from a population standpoint, however. They want approximately 250,000 people within a five- to 10-mile radius for new stores."

Local officials also have been in contact with multiple department stores, including Dillard's, Seckman said. However, there are no plans to open a Dillard's outlet in Dubuque.

In the short term, consumers could see new discount department retailers setting up shop in Dubuque, Seckman said.

"We hit their demographics a little better," he said. "They are a bit smaller and growing more rapidly because there is currently a lot of demand for that type of product."

GROWING GAPS?

Since the Retail Strategies study was revealed last year, major businesses in two of the categories with large spending gaps have shut their doors.

MC Sports announced it will close the Asbury Plaza location at 2585 Northwest Arterial at the end of May.

Meanwhile, Gap, GapKids and babyGap outlets in Dubuque's Kennedy Mall closed in the final week of January.

Seckman said locally owned businesses have helped fill the retail gap for clothing. He cited the opening of Namaste -- a business that specializes in "athleisure wear" for men and women -- as a prime example of a company aiming to fulfill the area's retail needs. Located at 955 Washington St., the business opened its doors in the fall. Seckman also expressed optimism that national retailers could help fill the gap in women's clothing.

He cited Ann Taylor Loft as a retailer that is "right in Dubuque's wheelhouse" in terms of demographics. However, the company often has very specific demands in terms of retail space, he said.

"It is not always an issue of the market as much as it is placement within a location in that market," he said.