My Time At ICSC

I’m on the train coming back from the ICSC (International Conference of Shopping Centers) Deal-Making Conference in New York City. I’m writing this down because I’m trying to figure out what just happened. If you’ve never been to a deal-making conference, you’re like most people, and I’ll tell you what it’s like.

You walk into the Javits Center in New York — it’s a massive convention center — the structure is completely enveloped in glass. The city keeps moving outside the glass, silently whirring, and inside, 11,000 dressed up people are making deals, not so silently. There’s two lines for two separate Starbuck’s locations inside the building — these lines are measured in time instead of amount of people. I was in a thirty-minute line, which is something I would never do, out of principle, but it gave me a place to meet people.

ICSC conference

ICSC conference

Sidenote: I find that waiting in lines is a great way to meet people. “How about this line?! Ha! Can you believe it? Hi, I’m Bart.” Friend: made. I waited for a bathroom and met a cool dude. We didn’t make any deals, because that would have been weird.

Once you get the coffee and the nametag, you walk down stairs into about 100,000 square feet of rows and booths and people. There’s nowhere you can go where there aren’t more people, which is why I call this conference The Introvert’s Nightmare. Walk to the most secluded bathroom you can find: packed with people. Try to get into a workshop: standing room only. Try to breathe: nope.

I went to a workshop led by Alan McKeon, CEO of Alexander Babbage, Inc., out of Atlanta, Georgia. He talked about a development in Atlanta — a massive old Sears, Roebuck & Co. manufacturing building that has been repurposed into a retail center. Ponce City Market, which was called “The Most Southern Food Hall Ever”, doesn’t have one chain restaurant in it. It’s a millennial’s dream. McKeon said that’s what separates this place, though — because there aren’t any chains, people keep coming back because this is the only place they can have this food. He said, “Even though the deals were a lot harder to structure, it was worth it for the long term success of the market.”

Kevin Plank - CEO of Under Armour

Kevin Plank – CEO of Under Armour

After the workshop, I went back to the floor with all the people and the endless rows. I believe that I walked about 3 miles, inside. We broke for lunch at noon, where Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, spoke. “I love blowing people’s minds”, Plank said, and then told us that Under Armour was partnering with Major League Baseball to provide every uniform in 2017. I thought, well that’s not that mind blowing, and then he talked about this horse-racing farm that he acquired in Maryland — a beautiful location where world class horses have been trained. And I was still thinking, mind not blown.

Then he revealed plans for a new Under Armour facility with about five high rises, essentially changing the city of Baltimore by uniting the racially charged “two sides”. And I thought, touché. He talked about including everyone in the development — focusing on job creation, on the importance of staying in Baltimore and helping the city and it’s people.
Then he talked about providing athletic gear to every high school varsity team in Baltimore.
And then he talked about a youth center they built for the city and it’s kids.
And then he talked about building a high-speed rail from DC to NYC with service to Baltimore.
And then he talked about building boats so Baltimore could get back to its roots of boat building.
And then he talked about their whiskey distillery that they built to attract development to a hurting area.

There’s always two ways to look at new developments — the first is, how will this benefit me? The second is, how will this improve my community? I understand that unique projects like Ponce City Market and whiskey distilleries don’t get built if people don’t make money from them, but I think of these projects as building with a conscience. You’re looking at the community around you, doing the research, and making decisions about what will bring more life. Does this block need another bank? Does this street need another Chipotle?

Taking an empty building and giving it new life excites me. Unifying a city split by tension excites me. Taking a longer time to make the right deal for a local restaurant or artist or fill-in-the-blank retailer that shares your goals of caring for the surrounding community — these are the things that excite me. At this conference, I learned that “shopping centers” don’t have to be bland, beige strip malls that look exactly like the one in the next town. That shopping centers don’t have to provide the same exact attractions in Massachusetts as they do in Iowa. Retail is headed in an interesting direction: towards experience instead of convenience, it’s shifting to micro instead of macro. Development and construction needs to shift along with it — we have to be willing to put in the work to make sure the community benefits where we benefit.

So the conference was good. It was massive and overwhelming, but it succeeded in challenging the 11,000 attendees to think big and think local. And I went to three after-parties. Two of which I was not invited to. Don’t tell anyone.

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