With more than five years under its belt, The Market Common is riding a renewed wave of growth
As the local, national, and, dare we whisper, global economy continues its stealthy and painfully slow rebound, signs of retail and real estate rebirth may be seen all along the Grand Strand, and perhaps most evidently within The Market Common District—a name given to much of the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. Sitting on 112 acres of the former 4,000-acre Air Force Base (closed in 1993), The Market Common, a gem of shopping, dining and entertainment, seemed to always shine brightly, even as the challenges of maintaining and operating a $170 million urban village in a depressed economy would take its toll.
Around 2005, JP Morgan Chase originally made construction loans to The Market Common developers. As in nearly all such relationships, the principals only saw the upside, not the potential and looming financial crisis ahead. In fairness, almost no one saw it coming.
Not unlike the backlot of a movie set, in 2007 the construction looked like a creation from city planners and Walt Disney who were building an urban utopia from the town square out. These “lifestyle centers,” a planned mix of retail, residential and entertainment facilities, were popping up all across the U.S., and Leucadia National Corporation, from New York, and McCaffery Interests, from Chicago, were the two developers who signed on and bought in to the project. The early hardhat tours in 2007 gave media and the public a chance to see the progress on a vision that had begun more than a decade earlier with the formation of the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base Redevelopment Authority. By 2006–2007, The Market Common was finally blossoming into something altogether new and exciting.
A portion of the former Air Force Base had been reimagined as a Master Planned Urban Development with shopping, dining, entertainment, recreation and residential options not found anywhere else in the region. Upscale retail, fine dining, sports bars, a microbrewery, a market-styled grocery store and a mega movie theater complex were all surrounded by live/work townhomes, long- and short-term apartment rentals, single family homes, higher education centers, and enough city parks and recreational amenities to promise the kind of fashionable urban lifestyle usually found only in larger cities. This was something never before seen along the Grand Strand.
With the local and U.S. economy riding high, and with great fanfare, The Market Common opened in April 2008. City and state leaders, political rivals and the general public all fawned over the remarkable transformation from the dusty and decaying Myrtle Beach Air Force Base into this vibrant urban center that seemed to mix family values with urban chic—Mayberry meets Manhattan.
The future looked bright, but bad mortgage storm clouds were gathering overhead.
Just as The Market Common Realtors were smiling all the way to the bank as live/work townhomes were selling out and presales and construction of single-family residences were barely keeping up with demand, the bubble burst. Almost immediately after the mortgage crisis and collapse of the U.S. real estate industry, the rest of the U.S. and world economy tanked in what has been called the worst recession in world history. No one was left untouched.
While The Market Common leasing managers struggled to fill still unoccupied retail space and keep existing retailers happy, new home sales all but stopped dead, and The Market Common’s utopian vision seemed tarnished. Myrtle Beach city spokesperson Mark Kruea has followed the fate of the Air Force Base from its closing to the first glimmerings and city council discussions of an “Urban Village,” which would eventually materialize into The Market Common.
The City of Myrtle Beach has a large stake in the success of The Market Common and has helped manage a $20 million investment and upgrade of the recreational facilities. The city also built and owns the roads and infrastructure, two parking garages, parks and the Grand Park Athletic Complex. “We’ve built seven large multipurpose athletic fields available for just about any sport,” said Kruea. “The vast majority of the $20 million investment came from the Air Force Base Redevelopment Authority and The Market Common.” Kruea was personally wowed by the offerings of this new lifestyle center. “I live in The Market Common myself—I don’t get to spend as much time there as I’d like, but it’s truly a destination.”
“The city envisioned what you see today back in 1995,” said Kruea. “It took almost 15 years to get there, but they did. The Market Common opened at the economy’s peak, but to succeed an Urban Village needs the residential community nearby, and because the housing market disappeared, it slowed them down.”
With the residential construction at a standstill, some of the retailers suffered.
Brooks Brothers, Ann Taylor and Banana Republic were the most high profile of the upscale shops to close and move on. Construction stopped on townhomes that were supposed to line Market Common’s streets. Even as recently as last fall the Tommy Bahama restaurant pulled up stakes, leaving its retail store intact, all while rumors of other planned defections circulated, but proving to be untrue.
While there were serious problems by 2009 and into 2010, The Market Common seemed to have a resilience built upon the very concept of the urban lifestyle center’s appeal.
High-end and specialty retailers and restaurants such as Orvis, Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie, Travinia Italian Kitchen, Gordon Biersch, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Barnes & Noble Booksellers remained strong anchors, and new boutique businesses continued to move in.
Brooke Doswell has been at The Market Common helm for the past three years. Doswell is General Manager and VP Director of Development and Leasing for BEI-BEACH LLC, a subsidiary of Leucadia National Corporation. She has a long history in retail leasing and has guided The Market Common out of the rough waters and sees clearer skies ahead. But she was with the company, though living and working in New York, during The Market Common’s roughest waters. She summed up her employer’s complicated transition through those toughest years.
“We [Leucadia] put $170 million in,” said Doswell. “We lost $50 million in cash, and we walked away from it $120 million in debt; we gave the keys back to the bank. We bought it back for $19 million [in 2011]. In essence, we bought it from ourselves. No one wanted it, by the way. Two other companies came in, did their due diligence and said ‘way too risky, it’s not worth it.’”
In hindsight, Doswell and many others think those companies who took a pass have judged too harshly.
Even though times were tough, the basic architecture and concepts of The Market Common proved tougher. Everybody seemed to love this new kid on the block, and while down, The Market Common was far from out.
As the months and years rolled on, most, but not all, of the restaurant trade managed to grow. William Morris, general manager of Gordon Biersch Brewery and Restaurant, has his finger on the pulse of his restaurant’s year-to-year growth and why he thinks Gordon Biersch has succeeded.
“We stand out as a brewery,” he said. “It’s a good niche here at Market Common. We’re the only [brewpub restaurant] between Liberty at Broadway at the Beach and Quigley’s in Pawleys Island. Plus the craft beer boom kicked in just as we opened here, and that’s helped a lot. We’ve got a great location, too. The only challenge all of us at Market Common face is the misconception that it’s a drive to get here. The construction on 17 [Bypass] doesn’t help either, but our numbers have gone up a little bit every year, and we’re seeing an up tick in foot traffic.”
Even during the darkest days of the economic downturn The Market Common attracted new residents and retailers. As the sun began to peak out from the storm clouds, the economy improved, albeit at a snail’s pace, and now, once again, The Market Common seems to be the retail and residential darling of the Grand Strand.
A drive through The Market Common today will amaze anyone who hasn’t visited recently. Residential construction has exploded out of the complete dormancy of late 2008 into something almost unrecognizable today. Bob Daurity, the project manager at Kolter Homes’ Cresswind neighborhood, is enjoying the kind of sales and demand seen before the housing crisis began. With its headquarters in West Palm Beach, Florida, Kolter saw an opportunity at The Market Common that has proven to be a winner. “We came here in April 2013,” said Daurity, “and as of December we’ve had 61 sales.” Kolter’s Cresswind neighborhood, off Farrow Parkway, features two- and three-bedroom, single-family homes from $227,000 to $320,000 and doesn’t even look at land packages where they can’t build at least 400 homes. “We have a 14,000-square-foot amenities center with a clubhouse, tennis courts, pickle ball courts, a pool, an outdoor amphitheater, event lawn. And we’re doing home tours almost every day. We couldn’t be happier. We’re projecting to be sold out by 2017. We just wish there was more land to buy out here.”
Penny Boling of Century 21 Boling & Associates has seen boom and bust days at Market Common and is enthusiastic about the return to strong real estate growth. “I have an office in the live/work townhomes and have been a part of the marketing and sales since The Market Common’s conception,” said Boling. “We are seeing customers coming in asking about all the new [developments]. The interest is just phenomenal. Market Common will continue to grow. Lennar will be building more at Emmens Preserve, Kolter is doing well and Sweetgrass [by Dock Street Communities] is doing very well. Many younger retirees and young families are moving in. This may end up being Myrtle Beach’s largest voting precinct, and the new downtown. Market Common, in many ways, is just beginning, and will continue to grow and grow.”
While the real estate mini-boom continues, the retail and resort side of The Market Common is also experiencing unprecedented growth and stability. The once troubled retail leasing now enjoys a 92 percent occupancy.
New and diverse retailers such as CityMac have moved in, shoring up the trendy retail mix. New and revamped restaurants such as Crepe Creation Café, Divine Prime Wine and Tapas Bar and Coastal Wine Boutique and Tasting Room have adjusted to demand and customer tastes. CO Sushi and Carolina Winery are new to The Market Common, as is a community theater: Stage Left Theatre Company. Construction is well under way on a resort-styled swimming pool for residents and vacationers staying in the apartments that line the streets just above the retail spaces.
“We bought another piece of land in 2012 to build our pool amenities center,” said Doswell, “which includes a 7,000-square-foot pool, a 430-foot lazy river, club house and two spas. It’s available for the use of the Dock Street homeowners and also through memberships. Our annual residential [lessees] and guests will have access as well. We plan to open in March 2014.”
Kruea and Doswell both see the area as a bonafide Myrtle Beach restaurant district and destination, with some 10 distinct restaurants and one large eatery, yet to be announced.
“We’re looking for a very special tenant for the Tommy Bahama space,” said Doswell. “We’re being extremely careful who we bring in. We want the right mix that provides that magical experience for the tourists and the locals.”
Crepe Creation Café stands out as a success story, transitioning from a tiny 500-square-foot live/work retail space into a new much larger location next to the Grand 14 Cinema movie theater.
“We were in the live/work space for 21 months,” said Larry Cauble, owner/operator of Crepe Creation, which re-opened in November. “Brooke [Doswell] has been very aggressive in getting new stores open. She’s been an incredible partner to me and worked diligently to make me a success. I live in The Market Common. I love it here. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It’s the main reason I decided to relocate to Myrtle Beach.”
Cauble’s restaurant specializes in fresh, hand-made crepes, which are thin, folded pancake-like sandwiches filled with sweet or savory ingredients. “I fell in love with crepes when I was living in Europe,” said Cauble, “and having a restaurant was always my dream.”
While most of the restaurants seem to be holding their own, what about the retailers?
CityMac represents the kind of retailer that seems like the perfect fit for The Market Common. Kevin Trivett, Senior VP of Business Development, agrees. “We’re an Apple specialist,” said Trivett. “We picked Market Common as one of our locations because it’s the kind of lifestyle center that delivers our market—upscale customers. The way that it’s cast and advertised, it fits our demographic perfectly.”
Orvis store manager Larry Tyler has been there since day one and found that a proactive approach—getting out into the community—has made the difference. “When the economy tanked we got out to the area Rotary Clubs, and anywhere we could, and we’ve created a loyal customer base. Now we’re seeing all the new housing construction here and are very happy about that. We teach a free course, Fly Fishing 101, throughout the summer.”
With dozens of outdoor festivals and events throughout the year, in-store promotions, live jazz music at Travinia, live singer/songwriter music at Nacho Hippo, and more, the merchants and managers of The Market Common are the real heroes of the comeback. They’ve held steady through difficult times, been creative with ways to reach their customer base, and seem ready to usher in the new climate bolstered by an improving economy.
At the start of a new year moods are high, plans are firmly in place, and new construction is evident at every turn. With chin up and shoulders back, in many ways the merchants, management and builders of The Market Common are treating 2014 like the center’s first year, not its sixth.