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Variety Key Part of Retail Center’s New Vision

Lingering woes in the housing market have prompted locally based IRE Development Inc. to shift the focus of its $30 million Eastlake Design District, a Chula Vista retail center that debuted in 2005.

Originally aimed at furniture and home furnishing stores, the 18-acre center has shifted its tenant mix and attracted several new businesses geared to the lifestyle needs of young families living in the area.

“After the economy started going south and the housing market started plummeting, we realized that focusing on home furnishings exclusively was not going to be a viable approach,” said Mike Vogt, president of IRE Development. “We moved to direct it more toward things like health care, entertainment, sports bars and restaurants.”

New Direction

While the 230,000-square-foot center still has about 30 percent of its space available, center operators and tenants say the tide has begun to turn.

While the center has a few national tenants, such as Ashley Furniture, Pacific Sales, Bassett Furniture Direct and Dunn-Edwards Paints, the majority of its most recent additions are locally based, including Kid Ventures, Eastlake Tavern & Bowl, The Brew House at Eastlake and fitness center b2be Sports & Wellness.

Among others on the way, Vogt said the center will soon get a new location of Poway-based Floaties Swim School, offering classes and pool activities for kids and young families.

In late August, the center moved to cement its family reputation by launching a weekly food truck gathering in its parking lot, with live music and other entertainment, which organizers say has drawn 200 to 500 people to the center for the three-hour Wednesday events. The popular food trucks come from restaurants around the county, notifying avid foodies of their location via Twitter and Facebook, and bringing in patrons from well beyond the master-planned community of Eastlake.

“Many of the people who come to these events are business owners themselves, so they might think of locating here,” said Darren Solomon, owner of Kid Ventures, which opened at the Eastlake center about a year ago.

His business offers an indoor playground with activities for children up to age 8, alongside a coffee lounge geared to their parents. Solomon said he chose the center as his second Kid Ventures location, after an earlier debut in Pacific Beach, because the South County region is known to have a good proportion of young families who have sought out relatively affordable housing during the past decade.

Solomon said the shift in the retail center’s tenant and demographic focus has been a crucial response to difficult times, especially in bolstering locally owned businesses that have been harder hit than national chains.

Drawing a Crowd

“You can turn to traditional marketing and advertising, but you have to think outside the box in this economy if you want to bring in more traffic and raise the visibility of your location,” Solomon said.

The changes come as several Chula Vista retail centers have recently been adding tenants. Michael Meacham, the city’s director of economic development, pointed to the recent arrival of clothing retailer T.J. Maxx at Village Walk, while the nearby Eastlake Village Center saw the entry of Chase Bank and Luna Grill, and will soon add a large national retail tenant that has applied for permits but whose name has not been announced.

To the west at Chula Vista Mall, Darden Restaurants Inc. has a new Red Lobster in the works. Meacham said the activity marks a continuation of a retail build-up in the city that started in 2005-2006 but was interrupted by the recession.

State and federal data indicate Chula Vista’s population grew 80 percent over the past decade, to 244,000. The city now ranks 14th in California and 77th nationwide. The 16-to-35 age group is among its fastest-growing segments.

However, Meacham noted that it places last among San Diego County’s large cities for retail sales tax collections, as local consumers spend elsewhere. “It’s an indication that the city is underserved, and the retailers realize that,” he said.

Vogt said a vacated, 18,000-square-foot furniture store space at the Design District has recently been home to a popular “Haunted Mansion” evening family attraction at the center. IRE Development is also in the process of setting up a storage facility on an unused portion of the property — originally intended for a second stalled phase of the design district — that will let people park recreational vehicles, boats and other large vehicles.

He said IRE owns several smaller retail and industrial parcels throughout the South County region, which holds promise for future household growth as the economy improves.

“Ten years ago you had two of the big sit-down restaurants in South County,” Vogt said. “Now you have 30.”

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