P.R. man Samuel L. Shipley thought he had the perfect name for Fairfax Shopping Center back in 1962: “Uptown Wilmington.”
The Fairfax Shopping Center Merchant’s Association embraced it. They adopted the slogan “The Heart of Uptown Wilmington.”
The moniker didn’t stick, but the early 1950s strip center is thriving while newer strip centers struggle.
The shopping center has been 100 percent leased since 2012, according to Collier’s International.
That compares with an 8.1 percent vacancy rate in the 14 centers along Concord Pike from Del. 141 to the Pennsylvania state line, according to Mark Undorf of Collier’s. The pike’s vacancy rate has risen above the 7.5 percent New Castle County rate due to the recent closing of the 37,383-square-foot hhGregg store at Brandywine Town Center and a vacant 75,651-square-foot call center space there.
The center’s independent retailers say business is steady. The Pet Supplies Plus store is the chain’s busiest in the Delaware-New Jersey region. The LabCorp location there is the busiest in northern Delaware. And, before Terry Cragg, owner of My Mailbox store, left the Mailboxes, Etc. chain, the Fairfax location was ranked among the chain’s top 10 stores in the country.
Original ’50s tenants Mitchell’s 5&10 Center, Hearn Bros Super Food Market and Brittingham’s Pharmacy are long gone, but the center owners are mindful to keep a diverse mix of stores to woo shoppers.
When Radio Shack closed its Fairfax store in March, landlord Bob Aerenson said he could have rented it several times over as an Asian restaurant or a nail salon, but there was already one of each in the center.
“We’re a little picky about the type of business we use to avoid duplication of the other tenants,” he said. “We spend a lot of time selecting the tenants that come here and making certain they serve the needs of the community. It’s also important to us to have a mix of locally owned businesses as well as national.”
“It has all the things that people would need,” said Drew Hurst, owner of Cupcake Heaven. Off the top of his head, he listed a gift shop, a liquor store, a swim shop, a hardware store, a high-end jewelry store, restaurants, a store that sells vacuum cleaners and one that sells large appliances.
“You can do pretty much anything you want from mail a package to the drug store,” said Art Pleasanton, who owns Fairfax Hardware. “If you can come to one shopping center and do most of your shopping, that’s not bad.”
With five restaurants, national chains, independent local merchants and anchor stores like Acme and WSFS and Walgreen’s, the strip center draws shoppers from neighboring developments. Some walkers shop there seven days a week, Aerenson said.
The center also draws from Concord Pike, where it has 746 feet of frontage, according to CBRE.
More than 49,469 vehicles pass the center daily, according to CBRE, and there are a generous 489 parking spaces waiting for them.
Starlet Quill, who owns The Swim Shop, said she gets a lot of walk-in traffic from people en route to Walgreen’s. “Maybe it has to do with the fact that it’s a straight line,” she said. Quill said her shop also
attracts international visitors from DuPont and Astra Zeneca attracted by lower American prices on name-brand swimwear.
Even with that, the decline of the two giants across the street — Astra Zeneca and the DuPont Experimental Station — is a point of concern.
“Most tenants are doing better than they were three or five years ago,” Aerenson said. “The economy has gotten a little bit better, but there are, obviously less people in the area than there were. J.P. Morgan has filled a little bit of that void, but we’d be in a better position today if Astra Zeneca was still operating at full capacity. The [former] Rollins building is being repositioned, so that will help.”
Hurst said his business is steady, although it was “even better” before the number of employees across the pike at Astra Zeneca began to dwindle five years ago.
And Pleasanton said he’s always concerned about the empty spaces on the Astra Zeneca campus. “Am I worried about Astra Zeneca? Darn right I am. If they can’t put somebody in there, it will slow business a little bit.”
“DuPont and Astra Zeneca, those were all six-figure jobs, a lot of them. We had DuPont since the ‘50s. They had some of the smartest people in the world right here,” said Pleasanton, who added that he sees more homeowners doing their own repairs since the recession.
While other sections of Concord Pike are occasionally dotted with empty glass display windows, that’s rare at Fairfax. Dr. Michael Wahl, who owns the center’s northernmost building next to Acme, didn’t buy it as an investment, but it’s been a good one. Wahl bought the building as a home for his dental practice, but he said it’s been 85 or 90 percent occupied since his purchase in 2008. He has only a few small office spaces that are not filled.
“Overall, I’ve been very pleased,” said Wahl, who added that one of his tenants is an orthodontist and he’d love to have more dental specialists lease spaces.
Alfred J. Vilone, the developer who built the center in 1950, once told Aerenson that people originally made fun of him for building a shopping center in “the middle of nowhere,” four miles from Wilmington’s central business district.
With once-thriving King Street no longer a center of commerce, the tables have turned.
“He had a lot of foresight when he built this shopping center,” Aerenson said. “The three most important things in real estate, as they say, are location, location, location.”