BELOIT - As retailers nationwide struggle with shifting market trends, communities like Beloit are losing major stores even as downtown and industrial growth takes place.
The Beloit Daily News spoke with various Stateline Area officials and learned, with the exception of larger cities like Rockford and Janesville, ways to spur commercial development are mostly out of reach from a public-sector perspective.
But a larger population isn't a cure-all, either. Even in larger cities, big-box national retailers have been closing stores and scaling back growth.
Brokers, business executives and developers say it's not only that changing consumer habits pose a threat to big-box retailers, it's also the fact small communities often are overlooked simply via the eye test and a glance at demographics.
Large commercial developments set out a near-standardized list of prerequisites before considering a community for a major project, all based on demographics focused on spending power.
Since 2000 Beloit has lost Kmart, Sears Hometown Store, Staples, and within the last year Elder Beerman, while Shopko and Payless ShoeSource closed last weekend. Before that, older readers will remember, the city lost its enclosed shopping mall. Elder Beerman was the last retailer at the former Beloit Mall, which has been steadily and successfully redeveloped from shopping into the Eclipse Event Center, including the Beloit Public Library.
It doesn't appear any other large-scale retailer has yet signaled interest in Beloit, while commercial development continues in areas like Machesney Park and Loves Park, Illinois, and in Delavan, Wisconsin - smaller communities in terms of population with higher household incomes and home values.
Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther said expecting to see significant growth for Beloit's retail sector would be akin to having "unrealistic expectations."
Luther said she was hopeful the potential approval of the Ho-Chunk Nation casino-resort plan, a whopping $405 million development, could bring further growth to the city. Project officials estimate thousands of jobs would be created if the plan was approved, and tribe officials acknowledged surrounding commercial development could piggyback off the major project.
"I think that it would absolutely create an opportunity for us to create more retail options," Luther said.
In South Beloit, the city has seen similar issues attracting retail development, but just like Beloit, has experienced a steady stream of industrial development and manufacturing growth since 2009.
Mayor Ted Rehl said the city was "trapped" between markets able to attract commercial development - Rockton, Roscoe, Machesney Park and the state border with Wisconsin.
"We're spaced in and our biggest problem is that our consumer base bleeds to Rockford or Janesville," Rehl said. "It's very difficult to have a low traffic border community."
To spur commercial growth, Rehl said the city would review properties along Gardner Street that could be purchased and redeveloped, while in consideration of the changing floodway and flood plain maps.
"We have to incentivize developers as much as possible," Rehl said.
Beloit Economic Development Director Andrew Janke said although the city wasn't in talks with a major retailer, he believes the city had made proper workforce decisions in bringing major companies to Beloit. Beloit is home to major employers including Regal, Beloit Health System, ABC Supply, Kerry Ingredients, Frito Lay and Pratt Industries. Janke said the companies often struggle to attract and retain qualified staff, a national trend.
Since 2012, an unexpected industry emerged in Beloit thanks to the Hendricks Commercial Properties redevelopment of the former Beloit Corporation property into the Ironworks business campus, focused considerably on information and technology.
The redeveloped property serves as modern office space for a variety of business and tech-based firms, from Ebates to AccuLynx, with a total of 18 businesses now housed in the complex. The campus is also home to the Irontek business incubator space that's currently at a roster of 50 budding startup businesses.
Recently relocated to the campus was the Stateline Family YMCA, along with a major expansion for First National Bank & Trust.
"I think Beloit has been a leader in redevelopment," Janke said. "It's an interesting evolution that fortunately all downtown has benefited from and we've seen a lot of activity."
The city's downtown core has seen major redevelopment, including the addition of residential units and various businesses from restaurants to small shops, something developers say is thriving due to consumer trends moving toward supporting highly-specialized local business compared to chain shopping.
Another challenge facing Beloit's ability in attract major retailers could also be its lack of housing stock, according to Rock County Development Alliance Manager James Otterstein, and the "leakage" of local spending power to communities from Janesville to Rockford but outside of Beloit.
"Beloit's economic climate has changed (as evidenced by what's happening in the Central Business District and the investments along the Milwaukee Road corridor) and in a data-driven environment these improvements to the community's overall narrative should have a positive impact," Otterstein said.
Tomorrow: Commercial developers give their perspective.