Strength in Shopping

Evansville's retail scene shows perseverance and growth potential

As the largest city in a mostly rural three-state region, Evansville is a long-established retail hub. That’s especially true on the city’s East Side, where commercial corridors continue to sprout new developments, and Eastland Mall — now 42 years old — remains vibrant enough to draw more vehicles than any other local destination.

There have been setbacks. Some stores have closed or relocated, with abandoned spaces still awaiting new occupants. Locally and across the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic kicked storefront shopping in the teeth and accelerated the trend toward online buying. Hiring also is a challenge for many retail establishments.

Despite those headwinds, observers say the Evansville area’s overall retail environment has stayed strong when compared to other communities. They say it can get even stronger.

Why the optimism? One answer is obvious — the expected completion of an Interstate 69 Ohio River crossing in the next several years will make traversing the area easier. Observers predict Evansville’s East Side, as well as Warrick County and Henderson County, Kentucky, will see new developments.

Even without the bridge, though, those same observers say the region’s retail scene is on solid footing.

Located in a pocket between major cities like Indianapolis, Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Nashville, Tennessee, and Saint Louis, Missouri, Evansville is “a must” for many national retailers, says Ken Newcomb, president of F.C. Tucker Commercial.

Newcomb notes that Evansville is a regional destination for not only shopping and dining, but also medical care and other services. Large facilities in the Ascension St. Vincent and Deaconess health systems sit on Evansville’s East Side and along Warrick County’s western edge.

When out-of-town guests arrive for care, they and their loved ones often make multiple stops.

“We don’t see a significant slowdown in retail competition,” Newcomb says. “There is room for more growth, and a lot of this is driven by the fact that Evansville has two award-winning hospitals in this area that keep expanding.”

The Promenade, a sprawling, mixed-use property between North Burkhardt Road and Cross Pointe Boulevard, has boomed in recent years. Costco Wholesale opened in June 2019, drawing bulk shoppers from roughly a 75-mile radius. That is a much bigger draw than other retailers, according to SVN The Martin Group, which markets The Promenade.

A slew of other stores recently have populated The Promenade, including Academy Sports. Costco and Academy Sports are the 10th and 11th most-visited destinations in the area, according to a 2022-23 report by research firm Zartico commissioned by Explore Evansville.

Lest anyone think Costco’s presence has hurt nearby Sam’s Club, think again — Sam’s is third in the same ranking.

Photo provided

“Sam’s has not been affected at all,” says Steve Martin, managing director of SVN The Martin Group. “Costco is doing better than they projected, and they projected it to be a strong, above- average store for Costco.”

Location analytics from tools used by SVN show The Promenade’s nationally known stores regularly attract unique visitors from a circle extending more than an hour from Evansville. They arrive from Terre Haute, Indiana, Clarksville, Tennessee, and even much larger Louisville.

There’s more to come at The Promenade. SVN says those projects include Wash Boss Car Wash, two retail centers, and Class A premier office buildings, and the market is not slowing despite higher interest rates.

SVN officials cite a close relationship between housing and commerce, and they believe the 220-unit luxury apartment complex under construction at The Promenade will help existing businesses and lure new ones.

They also noted the extension of Vogel Road, which will give vehicles an easier route between Burkhardt and Cross Pointe, is nearly complete.

The Promenade still has ample empty lots — only half of the property is developed.

“There are areas of The Promenade that we have not opened to the market at this time so we can attract large and exciting projects,” Martin says. “I think it is important to recognize we have ample acreage for growth in the areas that we have opened up to the market.”

Online buying isn’t going away, but neither are storefronts, observers say.

Andy Martin, SVN senior advisor, says many retailers are using storefronts for dual purposes — for walk-in sales as well as online order fulfillment.

Another trend, he says, is that online-based retailers are finding value in storefronts. He cites research from the International Council of Shopping Centers showing that digital retailers notice a 37 percent increase in web traffic after open- ing a physical location in a market.

“It just shows the strength of brick and mortar,” Andy Martin says. “There may not be as many as the future comes, but having brick-and mortar-stores in the right locations is vital for a lot of these retailers.”

Photo by Laura Mathis

Eastland Mall officials would agree. Many of the mall’s tenants have found success in combining online and in-person shopping — customers will order an item online and pick it up in the store.

“You can get your items faster that way, and if there’s a problem, say, with size, the store is right there to help you,” says Sean Ferguson, the mall’s marketing manager. “To me, that’s using technology to further promote great customer service in the stores. It’s a great tool and something a lot of our stores are using.”

Evansville’s status as a Tri-State shopping destination helps Eastland Mall’s major tenants — Dillard’s, JCPenney, and Macy’s, among others — keep their doors open, even as those chains have downsized elsewhere.

Ferguson says the mall uses social media to promote its stores, and the property’s owner, Macerich of Santa Monica, California, encourages a community approach that includes support of local nonprofit agencies.

Ferguson says youth sports tournaments at nearby facilities such as Deaconess Sports Park and Goebel Sports Park boost Eastland Mall business and help the property keep its status as the Evansville area’s most-visited destination.

“We love that,” Ferguson says of the top ranking. “We like the idea of being the traffic driver for the region, and we think other retail benefits from that immensely. We are happy when we see other retail coming into the market because it drives more business to us.”

Tourism CEO eyes East Side visitors center

Well aware that so many visitors to Evansville congregate in East Side commercial areas, the city’s visitors bureau is considering how to steer more of those guests to other local attractions: Think Mesker Park Zoo, the LST-325, the city’s museums, Bally’s Evansville casino and hotel, and more.

It’s something that’s been on Explore Evansville CEO Alexis Berggren’s mind for a while, and she’s interested in establishing a visitors center at Eastland Mall, which is the region’s most-visited location.

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“It’s something I am aggressively pursuing,” Berggren says.

She is working on a business plan for the concept, which would be subject to approval by Explore Evansville’s board. She says the visitors center would be “experiential,” with information about the area’s hotels and events, in addition to its attractions. It would be staffed and have branded merchandise for sale.

Berggren wonders how many visitors to the commercial East Side know what else Evansville offers. Zartico, a research firm that prepared a report for Explore Evansville on the East Side’s visitation and economic impact, encouraged the visitors bureau to team up with Eastland Mall.

Such a partnership, the report says, “would further educate and inspire visitors to engage with other areas/local businesses throughout the destination.”

Berggren is working on a proposal for her board’s consideration.

“The data speaks for itself, and I am very resolute in thinking that this is a strong play for us,” she says.

The research conducted by Zartico for Explore Evansville shows that more than 50 percent of visitors to the region visit the East Side’s commercial district, and 15 percent of the area’s visitors stop by Eastland Mall.

The same data show that local residents also visit the mall, and the larger East Side area, with high frequency.

Ferguson says Eastland Mall businesses employ more than 1,500 people annually, and its management strives to keep the property fresh.

“We have several things in the works,” he says. “We are always trying to change things, whether it’s how the mall looks and feels from an aesthetics standpoint to the tenants we have in it. It’s important to bring in new concepts and new looks.”

Also on the list of most-visited places is East Side retailer Meijer (No. 13), plus the popular chain restaurant Texas Roadhouse (No. 8). To Newcomb’s point, Deaconess Gateway Hospital Complex (No. 2) and Ascension St. Vincent Evans- ville Hospital (No. 7) on the East Side are other frequented stops.

Evansville’s East Side continues to grow, and western Warrick County is booming along with it, says Evan Beck, CEO and managing broker with Woodward Commercial Realty. He notes Warrick shows the region’s most substantial population growth — increasing from 59,689 in the 2010 Census to a 2023 estimate of 65,185.

Beck says the new I-69 bridge is the Evansville region’s “most critical and transformational” project because of the new development possibilities it will bring.

Communities along major north- south interstate highways historically fare better economically than those on east-west routes, Beck says, and if the new I-69 bridge boosts jobs and housing in the area, additional retail will follow.

Newcomb says a completed I-69 corridor “is just another economic driver” that will enhance area retail and make “access to Evansville and distribution areas easier.”

While statistics — as well as the eye test — show the economic impact of Evansville’s East Side on the region, other areas also have varying degrees of retail strength.

Observers describe the city’s North Side and West Side as areas of neighborhood-based retail, frequented by nearby residents but not as much by the larger Tri-State.

Residential growth on the city’s North Side, and in suburban areas such as McCutchanville, is leading to some uptick in retail presence.

“Commercial growth in northern Vanderburgh County is remaining strong, with over 650 homes in four major subdivisions, and more in the planning stages,” Newcomb says. “Residential growth is always followed by retail.”

The West Side has a commercial strip along Lloyd Expressway and Pearl Drive and locally owned shops on West Franklin Street, but future new retail possibilities are limited by the area’s topography and a scarcity of available land, according to area brokers.

They noted that many of the West Side’s recent retail projects have involved razing a structure and then rebuilding on the same lot.

Downtown Evansville, meanwhile, occupies a unique place in the area’s retail landscape. It features many locally owned businesses on Main Street and crossing streets, with clientele including Downtown residents and workers, plus those coming to the area for entertainment and special events.

Support for those businesses is vital to a healthy Downtown, says Adam Trinkel, executive director of the Downtown Evansville Economic Improvement District. Downtown hosts more than a dozen events each year, and each one has an intentional focus to “introduce and reintroduce” attendees to businesses in the district, he says.

“Time and time again, when we have events, we hear from people who say they’ve lived here for years and didn’t know about this shop,” Trinkel says.

River City downtown by Emma Bayens

Retail “isn’t dying, but is evolving,” Trinkel says, and for Downtown businesses, a key to ongoing success is offering a personal type of shopping experience that larger stores do not.

“We’re trying to drive home that message, and we feel like we’re the leader in sharing that story about the importance of shopping local and shopping small,” Trinkel says.

Brokers say the Evansville area’s diversity of neighborhoods, its place on the map, and its rent prices — which are below those in major markets — mean that residents and visitors will continue to have multiple attractive shopping options.

Plus, they say, there’s still plenty of land to build on — especially on the East Side and in Warrick County — as well as other spaces throughout the community for retailers to occupy.

“Overall, the retail outlook for our area is strong,” Newcomb says.

Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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