Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Iowa Outlet mall celebrates its 20th Anniversary

Tanger Outlet Center  in Williamsburg. 
Matthew Holst / Iowa City Press-Citizen
by Josh O'Leary - Iowa City Press Citizen

When Tanger Outlet Centers was scouting sites for a new strip mall in Iowa two decades ago, the city of Williamsburg had just the spot for it.

In 1989, says Mayor Frank Murphy, the town had run utilities out to the Interstate 80 exchange 1½ miles north of Williamsburg with hopes of attracting new businesses.

And did it ever.

Twenty years after it opened and six expansions later, Williamsburg's Tanger Factory Outlet Center has grown into one of the region's top retail destinations, drawing more than 1 million shoppers a year, housing dozens of national outlet shops and employing hundreds of workers.

Murphy said the outlet company's founder, Stanley Tanger, had been eyeing several locations at exits between Iowa City and Des Moines, but the site just north of I-80 at the Williamsburg ramp was primed for development.

"He comes to the city of Williamsburg and says, 'We're considering a possible outlet mall on this property, but we need city utilities,'" Murphy said. "We said, 'We already have them.' So that led to the mall being opened in 1991."

Tanger Outlets, which opened its first strip center in 1981 in Greensboro, N.C., is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, while the Williamsburg location is marking its 20th birthday.

Landing the mall was the result of foresight by city leaders, Murphy said, "and a little bit of luck, also."

When Tanger first opened in Williamsburg, it had 22 stores made up of a single row of storefronts. Today, the center features 55 stores in a multi-building complex.

It's lined with stores like Polo Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Brooks Brothers and Nike, which all offer direct-from-the-manufacturer goods, often at bargain prices.

Theresa Phillips, general manager of the Williamsburg Center, said the key to the outlet mall's success has been "having name-brand tenants that offer a discount and not having the middleman in there."

Dan Cohen owns the one local shop of the bunch, That Golf Place, which moved from a downtown Williamsburg storefront to the outlet mall last summer.

Foot traffic has increased exponentially since then, he said. A typical Saturday at the old shop would bring in three people, two of which would just stop by to shoot the breeze, he joked.

Since moving to the outlet center, business has picked up.

"We've turned a troubled situation into a good situation for us and the local people," Cohen said.

Cohen's golf store sells last year's models of golf equipment and apparel, and closeouts from suppliers at a discounted cost, alongside new merchandise.

"The whole mall does that and does it in a concentrated place so that people are able to maximize their savings by going to one place where everyone is working to give them good deals, rather than having to spend time on the Internet picking and choosing and trying to find deals, then driving all over the place," Cohen said.

Not only is it a milestone year for the mall, it's also one that will see a good deal of change with four new companies setting up shop.

Under Armour, a sports clothing and accessory company, and Christopher and Banks, a women's apparel store, opened in early May. Skechers, a shoe store, is slated to open June 17, and J. Crew, a young adult clothing shop, will open in the fall.

Phillips said the center has maximized its use of space at its location, meaning no expansions are in the works in the foreseeable future.

The city of Williamsburg has grown alongside the mall, seeing its population jump 17 percent, from 2,622 to 3,068, over the past 10 years, the mayor said. Murphy attributes that to the success of the mall, which employs nearly 500 people, as well as the proximity to the Iowa City employment hub.

The outlet center also has helped put Williamsburg on the map, drawing visitors from as far away as Omaha, the Twin Cities and Quad Cities.

"It doesn't matter where I go in the state or even in surrounding states, when they ask where I'm from, I'll say Williamsburg, and they won't recognize that," Murphy said. "But when I say Tanger Mall, they'll say, 'Oh yeah, I know where Tanger Mall is.'"


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