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Hungry for upscale retail

Far-flung Southlanders want fancier places to dine and shop but have to persuade businesses to come to them.

February 20, 2007|Amanda Covarrubias and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

Most weeknights after 5 p.m., a line of patrons snakes around the Olive Garden restaurant in Palmdale, where hungry diners face an hourlong wait. The story is the same at the El Torito next door and the Red Lobster up the street, where the wait on Friday and Saturday can last two hours.

Just about every sit-down eatery in the west Antelope Valley has a line at the dinner hour because there are not enough sit-down restaurants to meet demand in the fast-growing region.

"I don't even consider it anymore," said a frustrated Barbara Lods, 43, a marketing representative from Lancaster.

In the newly minted subdivisions and gated communities on the fringes of Southern California, residents express concern about traffic, schools and crime.

But what really gets them going is the lack of sit-down dining and upscale shopping.

Cities and towns in the Antelope Valley and Inland Empire have long been among the fastest-growing in the nation. Once written off by retailers as lower-middle-class "starter" communities, these areas are rapidly going upscale.

Now, former metro Los Angeles and Orange County residents weaned on gourmet grocers and glittering fashion emporiums want their California Pizza Kitchens. And their Nordstroms. And their Banana Republics.

The clamor has spurred local leaders into action as they try to convince skeptical high-end retailers that a formerly blue-collar town such as, say, Palmdale can support such enterprises.

"Perception is reality," said Mark McGaughey, a vice president with commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis in North Hollywood. "In their minds, the Antelope Valley is still a remote blue-collar, high-crime, backwoods kind of area."

McGaughey was hired by the city of Palmdale to try to lure retailers -- and acknowledges it has been an uphill battle. "Some of these restaurants, tenants and service providers, they want their brand associated with Santa Monica and Brea and Brentwood," he said.

Of course, inland cities are nowhere close to Brentwood and Santa Monica when it comes to property values or income levels. Still, the inland areas have seen major increases in spending power.

In 1990, the median annual income of households in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties was roughly $33,000, but by 2005 those figures had climbed to $52,000 and $49,000, respectively.

That's still below the statewide average of $54,000 -- but the jump is being fueled in large part by a boom in $800,000 to $1-million homes in such places as Corona, Rancho Cucamonga, Chino Hills, Riverside and Palmdale. And those residents want the retail to follow.

"It becomes a statement of who you are, that you've arrived," said Riverside Mayor Ronald O. Loveridge. "It helps define and give cachet to a city."

For residents looking for fulfillment in their search for high-end retailers, the holy grail these days can be found on Interstate 10 in Rancho Cucamonga, 50 miles east of L.A.

Once a punch line for comedian Jack Benny, Rancho Cucamonga now bills itself as the "Inland Empire's premier city," in part because of its success wooing high-end retailers.

Rancho Cucamonga officials tirelessly sold the city at trade shows and in industry publications. Its standing among the nation's fastest-growing cities helped appeal to chains, such as Banana Republic and California Pizza Kitchen.

Officials attended trade shows, such as the International Council of Shopping Centers, to romance retailers and developers. In advertisements and at booths, the city repeated its claim that the Inland Empire was no longer just cow pastures and dairy farms.

It was at one show a few years ago that the city made its pitch to mega-developer Forest City Enterprises Inc. of Cleveland, which two years ago opened the 1.3-million-square-foot Victoria Gardens "lifestyle center."

It was considered a retailing watershed for the Inland Empire. Victoria Gardens boasted the region's first Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma, and the apparel and home decor retailer Anthropologie opened in 2005.

In another coup for Rancho Cucamonga, the tony W hotel chain announced last month it would build a hotel there.

Jim Ellis, a USC marketing professor, said the success of Victoria Gardens signals hope for other far-flung Southern California suburbs because it shows how business locations are selected: Once one retailer of a certain caliber flourishes, others flock to the area.

That's what happened in Riverside.

Loveridge said an official from an upscale grocer that Riverside wanted once told him the chain "wanted to locate somewhere where people read labels."

But the success of Victoria Gardens, plus Riverside's aggressive efforts to lure upscale retail, is beginning to pay off with the recent arrivals of chains such as Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's. The city keeps a top-25 list of retailers it still pines for, including Whole Foods, home store Z Gallerie and apparel chain White House/Black Market.

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