Trick of the Trader Joe’s

Inquiring minds want to know: What’s it take to bring big retail to Little Rock?

SAY THE WORDS and it’s like opening a window. Fresh air. Sunshine and birdsong. Trader. Joe’s. Such sweet sounds, those syllables, flush with love and magic, “two-buck chuck” wine and Everything But The Bagel seasoning. Or at least that’s about how we felt the other day upon hearing Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola had received an email from a developer asking for a Trader Joe’s-related meeting. More on that in a moment, but first a few words for those unfamiliar with the California-based grocery chain.

For starters: Yes, it’s a grocery store (though some might argue it’s much more than that). Since its founding in 1958, T.J’s has developed a loyal following largely owing to the fact it’s a well-run organization. Good products and prices. An enthusiastic staff. To have one kinda feels like the small-town equivalent of a Pizza Hut or a Sonic: If you’ve got one, you’re probably doing something right.

Naturally, any prospect of a Trader Joe’s coming to town is bound to reignite a hotbed of speculation and rumor: that they’ve almost gotten one in Germantown, just outside Memphis; that the relaxing of Arkansas liquor laws vis-a-vis wine sales in grocery stores might clear any remaining hurdles for the aforementioned two-buck chuck; that the removal of a Walmart Neighborhood Market off Cantrell might presage an opening of the market.

Rather than monitoring the regularly churning rumor mill—T.J.’s is notoriously tight-lipped about any future expansion—we started asking around about what it takes to lure a major retailer. And after querying the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, state economic boards and commercial developers, we learned the forces driving change behind the curtain are kinda different than you might expect. At the end of the day, there is no magic touch, no stork that rides the winds of change into town and deposits a choice retailer just up the block. Nor is there, to use a metaphor closer to home, some grand, overarching plan emanating out from one governmental body or another.

If anything, it’s like Tommy Hodges, the local developer who brought Bass Pro Shops to town, told us: When it comes to recruiting major retail, the impetus is most often on the backs of local real estate folks and a “small fraternity” of national developers capable of landing the retailers. And while every project is going to be different—case in point: Tommy had been working on Bass Pro for 15 years, with four or five false starts with national developers—it does offer an interesting case study and insight into what the process is like.

The upshot: It’s not easy.

“We spent a year with Bass Pro back in 2003, round in there, and thought we had ’em,” Tommy says. “And a developer in North Little Rock, along with the mayor in North Little Rock, convinced Bass Pro they should go to North Little Rock. And 10 years elapsed, and they were not able to make North Little Rock work, for many reasons. And so they came back to us, 10 years later, and we made a deal with them, subject to getting the city of Little Rock to implement a Tax Increment Finance District that we had actually designed and put on the books back in 2003 or 2004. … That ordinance created a tax increment district for their location. And we revived that. So, subject to that incentive, I made a deal with Bass Pro, to come. And that’s how that happened.”

As for the significance of that aforementioned email?

“It’s an influence,” Tommy says, recalling the tax increment finance district they got from the city that amounted to $2 million in benefits. “But usually, there’s a property owner-slash-developer who’s local and he’ll go to the mayor once he has a prospect. And depending on the timing of it, he’ll say, OK, I’m trying to get Trader Joe’s in here, and here’s what they want. Can we do it? Can you do it? Can you provide whatever they’re needing?”

Again, at the end of the day, retailers are going to be looking for different things in the markets they enter, particularly nowadays in an era when so much of brick-and-mortar retail is getting swallowed by online shopping. But even then, and especially now that Little Rock’s making an attempt to bolster its national profile with its “Love, Little Rock” campaign, we’re holding out hope.