Butler County shopping centers luring in locally-owned retailers

As retail centers across the nation struggle to keep big-name tenants from closing, local shopping centers are looking to small businesses for help.

Sometimes they’re brought in to fill vacancies when brand-name retailers fold operations at multiple locations, but most Butler County shopping centers launched their tenant mix with mom-and-pop businesses included to give consumers a unique experience over other area malls.

Voice of America Centre, which has mixed in smaller, local tenants among big-name retailers since it opened in West Chester Twp. in 2003, added two locally owned retailers in recent months, including Velocity Lacrosse and The Silver Diva.

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Velocity Lacrosse, which started in Mason in 2002 and moved to Cincinnati-Dayton Road in West Chester Twp. in 2006, opted for its largest location yet at Voice of America Centre shopping center in December.

Having Voice of America MetroPark next door is a major perk in terms of keeping abreast of what local lacrosse teams are doing, but the 435,000-square-foot shopping center also has other appealing aspects, according to Kristi Awalt, the company’s vice president.

“We really like it because of the traffic,” Awalt said of the business, which fronts bustling Cox Road. “Plus, people are coming here anyways to buy their groceries, shop for clothing, get their hair cut and work out, so it was a no-brainer. It was actually (a choice) between here and Union Centre … and this won out because it’s an every-day plaza. ”

Paying a more expensive rent was “a roll of the dice,” one that made Awalt slightly nervous but, since moving, the business has seen an approximate 25 percent increase in sales each month compared to its previous location.

“I think this is one of the most active shopping centers in West Chester Twp.,” she said.

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At least 8,600 stores are expected to close in 2017, as consumers shift their spending habits online. The effects of the closures are far-ranging, impacting the job market and retail destinations throughout Greater Cincinnati.

As more shoppers use their spending power online, big retailers are investing less in brick-and-mortar stores.

But some of Butler County’s larger shopping centers say they aren’t worried because unique, small businesses are still attracting shoppers.

Local shoppers told the Journal-News they would rather buy from a mom-and-pop store than from a big box retailer.

“It’s a draw for me because I can come here and I can visit a place like this that is a specialty shop and then I can also, if I need to, run errands at some of the bigger stores where you would get your convenience items,” said Mercedes Williams as she shopped at The Silver Diva. “With a place like this one, they are so unique that I would go wherever they were located.”

RELATED: 5 retailers closing Ohio stores in 2017

In addition, “every time I’ve been here and I’ve visited one of the stores I’ve gone to eat somewhere here that isn’t my area,” she said.

Carrissa Barbee, owner of The Silver Diva, said she moved the custom-made jewelry and accessories business from Montgomery to West Chester Twp. in November specifically because of the increased foot traffic Voice of America Centre could provide.

“We wanted to be in a major shopping plaza,” Barbee said. “We were there in Montgomery for three years (but we wanted) more … of the walking by-type people (location). You can only drive so much traffic yourself.”

In the half year or so since moving to Voice of America Centre, The Silver Diva’s sales have increased by about 30 percent, Barbee said.

Celebrate Local, which sells a wide array of “made in Ohio” items from small businesses, from food, jewelry and art to clothing, coffee and candles, opened at Liberty Center when the $330 million mega retail project debuted in October 2015.

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Sharon Schutte, of Fairfield, said she likes that Liberty Center offers Celebrate Local and other storefronts and eateries that give area residents a chance to shop and support small businesses.

“I like independent stores, including independent restaurants, more than chains,” Schutte said. “I feel like the quality is better … and also, if they’re owned by locals, then the money goes here … it’s not going into some conglomerate where who knows where there money goes.”

Ten Thousand Villages, which sells items from artisans in more than 30 different developing countries, opened its third Southwest Ohio location at Liberty Center in November as a seasonal “pop up” location that would close after the holiday season but opted to go long-term because of the amount of foot traffic the storefront enjoyed.

Darlene Rohrer-Meck, executive director for the fair-trade non-profit organization, said opening and sticking around on the second floor of The Foundry, Liberty Center’s indoor shopping area, was a matter of garnering access to “a whole different market.”

“It gives them something new and different in a mall setting,” Rohrer-Meck said. “This is a feel-good shop where you’re not only getting something beautiful, but you know you’re making a difference in someone’s life.”

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