Big box stores don’t just plop down in a city whenever or wherever they want. Companies have to navigate city council, community approval, tax incentives and real estate transactions in a monthslong or even yearslong process.
Behind the scenes there is often an economic development professional to help companies maneuver those obstacles, as well as attract them in the first place. Cities like Fairview Heights hire those professionals so they can work to bring new businesses, maintain jobs and diversify the local economy.
Paul Ellis is Fairview Height’s new man for the job. He started at the beginning of November and will take over full responsibility Dec. 16 as the city’s current economic development director Mike Malloy retires from the position. Ellis’ salary is the same as Malloy’s, $91,639.
The Belleville News-Democrat sat down with Ellis to talk about St. Clair Square shopping center, the future of retail and his vision for Fairview Heights.
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What is the future of St. Clair Square shopping center?
Fairview Heights is Illinois’ largest retail hub south of Chicagoland, Ellis said, but he has already faced questions about the health of the city’s mall.
With more competition from Belleville and O’Fallon, Ellis said the mall, owned by Tennessee-based CBL Properties, is still a “good asset.” Of the company’s 250 malls nationwide, St. Clair Square is number two in production, Ellis added.
Several clothing stores have closed in the mall the past few years, but Ellis says the mall is still healthy, a sentiment reflected by St. Clair Square Manager Michael Hagen in a July interview with the BND.
But Ellis said there is still room for improvement to the retail environment, “built upon St. Clair Square as an anchor and enhanced, we hope, by improvements to other shopping centers that are coming down the pike.”
“Retail is facing a big shift,” Ellis said. “We’re not suffering, but the time to fix things is before they’re broken.”
A mall spokeswoman said the company is updating its tenant mix to include holiday retailers, there are no development plans “at this time.”
What’s the city’s vision for attracting more business?
Fairview Heights is “over-retailed,” the incoming economic director said. The city needs to focus on improving and beautifying its existing assets in order to attract new businesses.
The city’s planned recreation center, complete with a pool and outdoor activities, is “the tip of the iceberg” for improving residents’ quality of life, Ellis said. A streetscape project across from the mall and future bike and walking trails will also help lend to the city’s appeal, Ellis said.
The city can’t force business to come, Ellis said, so they “can only create conditions conducive” to retailers. Creating an environment where talented people want to live is one way to do that, he said.
“People come to Fairview for the shopping, and they continue to do that,” Ellis said. “But we’re expanding it a lot more to make it a more interesting place to visit, a better place to live.”
Instead of focusing purely on more retail, Ellis said he plans to brighten existing properties and attract a more diverse tenant mix.
About retail in Fairview Heights
The city has approximately 3.5 million square feet of commercial space. It is home to 75 restaurants, eight hotels and motels, and eight shopping centers, including St. Clair Square. Nearby Interstate 64 sees 75,000 vehicles pass daily.
Meet Paul Ellis
- Job: Economic development director for city of Fairview Heights
- Age: 64
- Residence: Lives south of St. Louis
- Background: More than 30 years of experience in economic development.
- Previous jobs: president of the Jacksonville Regional Economic Development Corporation, economic development director for the city of Columbia and worked more than 20 years at Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber in Washington state.
- Achievements: include coordinating a regional transportation partnership in Washington and working on the 11 South healthcare and office complex project in Columbia.
- Family: Wife Anne of 41 years. They have three grown daughters and seven grandchildren.
- Degree: Bachelor’s in education from Seattle University, 1978