Successful retailers are smart. They like to open stores in affluent and stable communities, where people have money and are looking for places close to home to spend it.

Consider the Advocate’s targeted Lake Highlands neighborhood, where the numbers show a population of about 49,000 households with a median family income of more than $52,000. The median age is 36. Almost 91 percent of adults have attended college. Home prices register in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Lake Highlands’ demographics exceed thos of the Park Cities, where median incomes barely top $40,000. But unlike the Park Cities, our numbers describe a community that retailers have largely ignored.

What’s going on here? If we’ve got the income and the education, why won’t the big retailers build their new stores just down the street from our homes?

Blame our dilemma in part on the lure of the suburbs, where wide-open spaces and an exploding population of homogeneous, high-income homeowners led retail developers to build, build, build throughout the 1980s.

Most of us in Lake Highlands agree that the malls and their attendant problems are located just where we want them, either on the “wrong” side of the expressway or in the suburbs.

But what happens when baby needs a new pair of shoes or Mom and Dad are in the market for some new clothes? The stores that carry this merchandise just don’t exist in large numbers in Lake Highlands.

We’ve got to travel to find many of the businesses we need, and we’re not always happy about that.

Renovation of outdated existing space is always an option. But such projects are expensive, and as a result, most developers prefer to build new shopping centers. And without available land, developers see little new development in our future.

“I don’t think you have the retail space logistically located where stores are going to do a large volume of business to support the rent,” says Scott Coughlin of Clements, Realtors.

“People are going to go to NorthPark (at Central Expressway and Northwest Highway), where they can shop many outlets at one time.”

Herb Weitzman of The Weitzman Group, a dominant citywide retail brokerage company, sold the land across Northwest Highway from Medallion Center, where Venture is building its first discount store in Dallas. But Weitzman isn’t looking at any similar deals in the area.

“There’s just no land,” he says. “The area has always had good demographics. There just hasn’t been land.”

IN SEARCH OF A LOCATION

Barbara Womble is vice president of marketing for Henry S. Miller Interests Inc., which owns Highland Park Village at Mockingbird and Preston, one of the area’s finest neighborhood retail centers.

Highland Park Village provides a blend of upscale and mid-price stores and other attractions to its affluent Park Cities patrons.

“If a developer hasn’t done a mixed-use shopping center of any magnitude in your community, ask yourself, ‘Why?’” Womble says.

“Usually, you need two to four (well-traveled) roads that intersect, on at least 10 acres of land. Maybe that doesn’t exist in (the area). Maybe nobody’s tried hard enough (to develop the right intersection). Maybe NorthPark has satisfied the need.

“When developers put together these packages, they have to get the land and the thoroughfares all in place,” Womble says.

“And they’re not going to do it if they can’t convince themselves the demographics are right. You can’t pitch a Macy’s or a Nordstrom’s or a Foley’s if you don’t have it together.”

NIXED BY NORTHPARK

Commercial broker Ken Jaffe of The Swearingen Co. agrees that NorthPark is a powerful draw for Lake Highlands residents – and one of the primary reasons major retailers don’t consider our neighborhood for new construction.

“Lake Highlands has a sufficient base to support neighborhood retail. But a lot of the neighborhood retail dollars are being spent at NorthPark and other malls. They’re not staying in the neighborhood,” he says.

“Neighborhood retail survives very well if you get the correct mix of (businesses, such as) restaurants, clothing stores and children’s stores.

“Unfortunately, these stores want to be on Preston Road or in a mall,” Jaffe says. “They’re not going to Lake Highlands right now, whereas the shoppers from Lake Highlands will go to NorthPark or Preston Road for their purchasing.

“The retail tenants who are coming into the Dallas market today are looking at Preston Road and Plano or peripheries to malls. It’s a case of demographics and disposable income,” Jaffe says.

WINNERS AND LOSERS

Not surprisingly, good neighborhood retail has been hit or miss in Lake Highlands. The busy intersection at Skillman and Audelia is the area’s jewel, with the elegant Compass Bank center and the sprawling Plaza Rios/Tom Thumb shopping center.

But those centers also are stealing tenants from older, increasingly vacant shopping centers throughout the area. Northlake Shopping Center at Northwest Highway and Ferndale lost The Collection a year ago to Compass Bank center, and now Tom Thumb will close its store at Northlake.

Albertson’s left a big empty space at Kingsley Road and Audelia, and Kroger abandoned the Kingsley-Skillman intersection.

A Tom Thumb superstore is the only bright spot at the otherwise rundown Forest-Abrams center, and Winn-Dixie (and its successor, Michael’s) is a distant memory at Town Creek at Abrams Road and Royal Lane.

Town Creek is more like a ghost shopping center, with only a few tenants remaining in a development roughly the size of two city blocks. Sherwin-Williams and a fitness center are the only significant tenants. A sign out front announces: “Food Lion. Coming Soon. Extra Low Prices.” After months of inactivity, crews have finally begun to work on the site.

SAY IT AIN’T SO

The situation angers Ann von Rosenberg, a 35-year Oak Hollow resident who thinks her upscale neighborhood deserves better.

“You have people here who own half-million-dollar homes who have to drive all the way over to Skillman-Audelia or south to the Simon-David at Skillman and Abrams just to buy groceries,” von Rosenberg says.

“All of the shopping centers in my area are closed. And yet at Preston and Royal and Preston-Forest, (the owners) rebuilt their shopping centers and moved in great tenants that make me want to drive all the way over there.”

“And when I come back, I’ve got Dallas Cowboys T-shirts hanging from clothes lines on the street corner.

“If they (retailers) were really smart and did their demographics well, they would see there is more money on this side of town than there is at Skillman-Audelia,” von Rosenberg says. “And yet, all the retail is over there.”

One of Town Creek’s few tenants, Carol Beshears, says she’s moving her Cakes of Elegance store to the Skillman-LBJ Freeway area, where she negotiated a better rent.

“This shopping center needs a drawing card. I don’t even think Food Lion is going to be it,” she says.

Pam Grundy, who moved her Freckles children’s clothing store from Town Creek to Plaza Rios about 10 years ago, says: “I think areas sometimes get a bad reputation after awhile.”

Mark Clark of Axiom Real Estate Management Inc. admits that Food Lion was supposed to open a year ago in Town Creek. (“It had nothing, repeat, nothing, to do with the ABC News story [about the sale of out-of-date meats],” he says, adding that Food Lion will open “this summer, if not sooner.”)

As for the shopping center’s potential: “It’s probably one of the choicest locations in North Dallas, if you look at the demographics.”

THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’

Town Creek once was a busy neighborhood shopping center, and with business cycles turning, it could be again. Rents in Lake Highlands persist at a healthy $12.51 per square foot, according to M/PF Research Inc., which tracks Dallas-area retail and office markets. The occupancy rate is 81 percent, just above average for the region.

And renovation of Northview Plaza, with the addition of a Kroger supermarket, has indicated faith on the part of business owners in the Northwest Highway-Plano Road neighborhood.

Other projects, including the new White Rock Marketplace on Garland Road and the Venture discount store going up near the vigorous Skillman-Abrams area, are good signs.

Coughlin says the market must eventually fill a pent-up demand for restaurants in Lake Highlands, which also will help build up area retail.

“We’re seeing a revitalization of our retail base,” says Sean Hockens, publications editor for M/PF. “A lot of these shopping centers were built in 1950s and ’60s, when the area was being built out.

“As the population moved to the suburbs in the ’70s and ’80s, we saw little new construction closer in. Now we’re starting to replace some of that old retail stock and expand existing properties.”