Fremaux center opens amid concerns about older mall

Slidell’s new Fremaux Town Center will officially throw open its doors to shoppers and diners Friday, giving eastern St. Tammany Parish a retail development to rival those on the parish’s western side.

Even though the new shopping center is expected to provide a revenue boost to a city government largely supported by sales taxes, officials are keeping a wary eye on the city’s other major shopping center, North Shore Square Mall, which has seen an exodus of stores that may accelerate now that the newer, flashier development is open.

The long-anticipated Fremaux Town Center has been hailed by city and parish officials as more than just a shopping center. According to Stirling Properties, which is developing the center along with CBL & Associates Properties, Friday’s opening is the first of two expected phases.

The second phase is scheduled to open in 2015.

A site plan of the second phase shows spaces for town homes, apartments, medical offices and other office space, but those plans are purely conceptual at this point, according to Donna Derokey, of Stirling Properties.

When complete, the planned 400-acre development will be a “city within a city,” according to Slidell Mayor Freddie Drennan. The proposed office space and high-end apartments could help lure businesses and professionals to Slidell, he said.

“It will bring jobs — good jobs — to our city. A lot of them will live here,” Drennan said.

The city’s biggest source of revenue is sales taxes, and last year flat revenue led to budget cuts. Drennan said he hopes Fremaux will help offset some of those cuts.

Even as development on the Fremaux site alongside Interstate 10 expands, however, the city’s longtime retail center, the North Shore Square Mall, is contracting. A Best Buy store adjacent to the older mall is moving to Fremaux.

Other North Shore Square retailers, including Lane Bryant and Kirkland’s, also will open stores in Fremaux, and it is unclear whether those chains will choose to keep two Slidell locations.

Dillard’s, which will anchor the second phase of Fremaux Town Center, is mulling whether to keep its two stores at North Shore Square, according to Drennan.

The Sears store in the mall already announced that it will close for good in June, though its closure has not been linked to the Fremaux opening.

A message left with a Dillard’s spokeswoman was not returned.

“We are certainly concerned about North Shore Square,” Drennan said this week, even as he lauded the imminent Fremaux opening. “We are trying to keep the mall up and viable.”

Drennan said he has met with representatives from Morguard, the company that owns the older mall, about ways to keep it operating.

The problems at North Shore predate Fremaux, according to parish Economic Development Director Don Shea, who added he didn’t think Fremaux would cannibalize other area retailers.

“When that mall was built, it was state-of-the-art, and people from the south shore came to shop there,” Shea said. “But over time, economic cycles change, and retail has to respond to that.”

Such changing retail patterns have been seen all over the country, Shea said, leading to some creative solutions for using mall space.

“We have seen malls across the country repurposed as institutes of higher learning or health care facilities,” he said, adding that he wasn’t recommending either of those for North Shore Square Mall.

Rather, he said, careful consideration would have to be given to the mall’s future uses.

Though its future may appear dire, North Shore Square Mall retains a major selling point: It sits on Interstate 12, which Shea has referred to as St. Tammany’s “main street.”

Over the last two months, the parish has designated five economic development districts along I-12, including one just north of the mall, around the Slidell airport.

“It’s well located in the sense that it has easy access,” Shea said of North Shore Square. “It’s going to be desirable for something.”

A Morguard representative reached by phone refused to comment, but said he had forwarded a reporter’s email to others in the company who might want to comment.

None did.

The concerns about North Shore Square have not dampened expectations for Fremaux. The first phase contains more than 350,000 square feet of retail space on approximately 80 acres, anchored by a Kohl’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods, both of which should be open Friday, along with Best Buy, PetSmart and several other retailers and restaurants. Starbucks, TJ Maxx and Michaels, all part of the project’s first phase, have yet to open.

According to information provided by the developer, the projected annual sales of the first-phase development are $123 million, with another $97 million expected from the second phase. The entire property lies within the city limits of Slidell, meaning the city could see a significant increase in revenue if those numbers prove close to correct.

The new center gives the eastern side of the parish a retail development to match what has been going up along La. 21 in western St. Tammany.

There, two major retail developments — River Chase and Colonial Pinnacle Nord du Lac, which straddle I-12 — have created more than 1 million square feet of retail space.

The larger of the two, River Chase, was also developed by Stirling Properties. Both, like Fremaux, also have plans for office space to help attract nonretail businesses.

Major retail developments have been key to St. Tammany Parish’s rapid growth over the last several years. But Parish President Pat Brister and other officials have repeatedly stressed the need to move beyond retail, an effort they have described as helping the parish economy “mature.”