An unexpected sector of retail is growing around Polaris Fashion Place.

When the Interstate 71 interchange just north of the Franklin County line opened 26 years ago, it served just one 60,000-square-foot aerospace assembly facility and 1,200 acres of farmland Columbus developers Bob Echele, Bob Weiler and Don Kelley had assembled in hopes of creating a mixed-use development.

Plans for the Polaris Centers of Commerce at that time called for retail anchored by a regional mall and big box retail center attracting the burgeoning housing construction getting built in southern Delaware County, as well as expectations that corporate office development would take root. The retail vision began to take shape in 1998 when Columbus developer Herb Glimcher committed to being the 750,000-square-foot Polaris Towne Center developer and, three years later, opened the 1.6 million-square-foot, seven-anchor Polaris Fashion Place mall.

While the retail sector has not been focused on brick-and-mortar stores in recent years, Polaris remains vibrant and in the last year or so has attracted significant new tenants, especially in the furniture and household furnishings retail category. Swedish retail behemoth IKEA opened its 350,000-square-foot store on the bulk of the vacated Germain Amphitheater site in June, several months after Columbus-based Value City Furniture and the Big Sandy Superstore of Scioto County also dropped into the market.

“We knew IKEA would attract other retailers,” says Franz Geiger, managing partner of the NP Ltd. venture the late Echele formed with Weiler, Kelley and several limited partners. “We didn't know it would be other furniture and household furnishing retailers, but we are pleasantly surprised.”

The Texas-based At Home décor and furnishing retailer opened its third Columbus store in early November at Polaris followed weeks later by suburban Dayton-based Morris Furniture. The latter opened a two-level, upscale furniture store with affiliated Ashley HomeStore and Better Sleep Shop on the ground level.

A Value City executive declined to say what impact IKEA's early 2015 announcement it would locate its second Ohio store at Polaris had on its decision to move into the Polaris market. “We looked at our Columbus hometown market as a great opportunity to grow our brand, our customer base and our financial performance,” says Michael Broidy, spokesman for Value City parent American Signature Inc. “The addition of IKEA and retail to the Polaris area is a good thing; a vital and growing center and marketplace brings more customers, traffic and opportunity.”

Big Sandy CEO Robert VanHoose Jr. says the Franklin Furnace, Ohio-based seller of furniture, appliances, electronics and mattresses that opened in the former Dick's Sporting Goods store in August 2016 does not consider IKEA as a direct competitor. “We think we have a unique position in the market,” he says. While IKEA “was not a factor” in the decision to expand to Polaris, “we like the IKEA at Polaris; it's a plus,” he says. “It's attracting more people there.”

Reimagining Retail

Fashion Place General Manager Bruce Goldsberry agrees the IKEA opening has increased traffic within the broader retail segment of the Polaris development, which now offers 4 million square feet of combined retail space. “Home furnishings has become a strong retail category,” he says of the retail boomlet near the mall. “We've seen extra footsteps (of customer traffic) and we've been able to capture some of those footsteps and bring them into our restaurants and stores.”

The mall, now owned by the Washington Prime Group after the REIT's acquisition of Glimcher Realty Trust, has undergone significant transformations after the loss of two anchor positions. Pittsburgh-based Dick's Sporting Goods in September 2015 relocated into the shuttered Great Indoors anchor that parent Sears had abandoned four years earlier; Dick's split the 136,000-square-foot building with sister retailer Field & Stream. “It makes perfect sense for Dick's to have the Field & Stream component there,” Goldsberry says, noting the opening of its national competitor, Cabela's sporting goods, nearby off Gemini Parkway in February 2013.

That re-tenanting of the Great Indoors space, in fact, marked the second major redevelopment effort at the mall. The landlord in 2008 offered an open-air concourse on the site of the demolished Kaufmann's department store anchored by a Barnes & Noble bookstore, Cheesecake Factory and the Dave & Buster's restaurant and video arcade. “Trends change, shopping habits change,” says Goldsberry. “You have to constantly look ahead to see what you can bring to enhance the mall experience for the customer.”

NP's Geiger says the spurt of home furnishings retailers moving into Polaris and the successful repositioning of two mall anchor properties show how top-tiered retail can survive even in the era of online retailing. “You'd be a fool not to be concerned about (the future of) retail,” he says of retail developers and landlords, acknowledging the regular stream of news stories of some well-established brands reducing their network of stores.

“But retailing's not going to disappear overnight,” he adds. “People are social animals; they want to go out and interact.” Retailers will adjust, or fade away. “It will force retailers to go back to what they do best: provide service. The best way to sell a product is to have someone (a salesperson) who knows the product and can talk to the customer.”

Still More to Come

The resurgent sports-retail theme Cabela's, Dick's and Field & Stream represent will continue with a technological bent as Dallas-based Topgolf in late November started construction on a 65,000-square-foot entertainment center. The facility is built around a tech-fueled driving range where guests hit micro-chipped balls toward a video screen as programs calculate the distance and accuracy of the drive from multi-level bays back onto the screen. An extensive sports bar/nightclub completes the package which Geiger expects to tee off in mid-2018 on about 15 acres near IKEA.

That project leaves NP Ltd. with less than 200 acres to develop. “That's still a lot of land even though we've developed lot of acres during the last few years,” Geiger says. The developer and others such as multifamily developer Kaufman Development have added a significant housing component to the mixed-use development in recent years. “People want to live close to where they work,” he adds, estimating that as many as 40,000 now work within Polaris.

The master developer in December brought to market the first 214 apartments in the first phase of The Pointe at Polaris, a mixed-use complex just north of the 8800 Lyra Drive multitenant office building east of the mall. That $54 million first phase also offers 30,000 square feet of retail shell set for release to the first round of tenants for buildout and 70,000 square feet of professional office space served by a 615-slot parking garage and 230 surface parking spots.

Confirmed retail tenants include the Sweetwaters Café concept out of Ann Arbor, Michigan; Pleij Salon; and a dual-branded Wings Over Columbus chicken wings joint combined with a pub called the Atlas Tavern set to open in February. “Those will be very convenient for those living and working there,” Geiger says of the initial tenant lineup, “but they're quality enough to attract those from outside the development.”

Further development, perhaps even a Tesla auto dealership or a specialty retailer near Topgolf and IKEA, will take place when the right tenants emerge. “It has to be the right mix,” Geiger says, “the right fit.”

The latest wave of furniture retailers builds on a few long-time tenants such as FrontRoom Furnishings and Havertys, the latter of which opened in 2005. Havertys' General Manager Aasim Fountain says Ikea, Big Sandy and Value City “have already become big traffic drivers” in the Polaris market.

Beth Korab, Morris' director of advertising, says, “We were looking for a destination market.” With the addition of IKEA, Big Sandy and Value City,“Polaris has become a real furniture row. It all fell nicely into place.”

Morris also has a store at Easton and operates an Ashley Homestorewithin the Sun Center at Sawmill Road and Route 161.

Brian Ball is a freelance writer.