Three months after opening its doors to customers, the Lawrence Riverfront Plaza is starting to firm up.
The furniture is in place. The signage is up. And all of shops on the street-level floor of the center have been leased.
But the center is still just a hatchling, and it probably won't begin to see its potential until this fall, when students return to the city, say factory outlet officials.
"I think we're very happy. It's really in its infancy stage and we will build the traffic level as time goes on," says Michelle Rothstein, vice president, marketing and advertising, for the Chelsea Group, an East Coast-based firm that owns the mall.
Nearly 40 stores have now leased space at the center, which had just under 30 stores when it opened in April. The mall has room for about 57 retail outlets and is now about 70 percent occupied.
AS OF THIS week, 37 stores plus a food court have leased space at the mall.
Several managers of stores in the factory outlet center contacted this week said they were pleased with sales. Some even said they were well ahead of projections.
Chelsea expects the center to generate $1.28 million the first year, growing to $2.37 million in the 10th year.
But exact sales figures are being held close to the vest by manufacturers that have located stores in the factory outlet center, says Rothstein.
"The only thing that I know at this point is that all the stores report that they are meeting or exceeding their projections," she said.
Rothstein said the early customers are coming from the targeted areas of Lawrence, Topeka and the Kansas City metropolitan center, as planned.
BUT SHE SAID as the factory outlet center grows, she expects it to tie into more group tours through working with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce's Convention and Visitors Bureau.
One of the main reasons Lawrence officials have pushed for more than a decade to improve Lawrence's retail shopping climate was because of fears of retail "leakage" into the malls in Johnson County and Topeka.
David Darling, a Kansas University economic development specialist, says he will have a new retail sales "pull factor" rate available for the city in September that will probably show that the factory outlet center is pulling more shoppers to Lawrence.
Darling predicts that the drawing power of Lawrence from communities north and south of the city will be increased by the riverfront mall.
"I think it will anchor and strengthen the market pull of Lawrence so there will be less leakage out of Douglas County," he said. "It's too early to tell."
DAVID LONGHURST, the mall's manager, painted a positive picture of the mall last week.
"Generally speaking, almost all of the stores, if not all, have done in excess of expectations and have done relatively well in comparison with other stores in other locations," Longhurst said.
"In many cases the stores here have been among their very best stores." Longhurst said sales were "very, very strong" during the first two months, but have slowed somewhat, as expected, after the bulk of Kansas University students left for the summer.
"We had gotten a little spoiled because they were very good in April and May," he said.
HOWEVER, manufacturers had underestimated the market, he said.
"This location is turning out to be quite a lot better than most of the manufacturers had anticipated and continues to be that way," he said.
Longhurst said most of the manufacturers now in the mall wanted to get in before the grand opening. However, just after the grand opening the number of interested tenants slowed almost to a stop, he said.
"Now, what's happenning is that the sales figures are getting back and the sales figures are very strong," he said.
The early results have spurred more interest in the mall, he said.
"We have several stores that are in the process now of finishing out their space and getting ready to open."
Several of store managers contacted said they were pleased with early sales results.
CHRISTIE Garcia, manager of the Van Heusen Factory Store, said the store has been open since April 6. Although she said sales figures and projections are confidential, "my company is pleased and I'm pleased."
"We're curious as to the impact of the students getting back into town in the fall," she said. "We're waiting to see. We just are real optimistic about things."
Garcia said she's noticed a lot of people buying from outside Lawrence, because she's getting a lot of checks from out of town, including Kansas City and Topeka.
"If you come out on a Saturday and look at the cars in the parking lot, they're all out of town license plates," she said.
MIKE Childers, supervising manager at American Tourister, said the store is doing much better than projections.
He said that within the first five days, the store had already surpassed its sales projections for the first month.
"It's doing outstanding. I can't give any figures but we're doing good. It looks like its going to be one of our better stores," Childers said.
Joan Spann, manager, of Corning-Revere Factory Store, said she couldn't release sales figures, but said the store was 54 percent ahead of projections for the month.
"Our sales are doing terrific," Spann said. Her staff thinks it can win a sales award for the next year, she said.
"We've found that most of our customers are coming from out of state from off the turnpike," she said. Customers have been from Kansas City, Mo., and other northwestern Missouri towns.
SHE SAID the company didn't know what to expect when it opened its factory outlet store because its similar stores are located near resorts.
Fieldcrest Cannon, which sells domestic items, is also running ahead of projections, says Bob Higgins, manager.
"It's better than the company expected," he said, explaining he couldn't reveal sales details. "It is quite a bit better."