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Brad Hutensky, president of the Hutensky Group, a Hartford, CT-based open-air center development firm, is a fixture on panels at ICSC sessions. This year he is moderating a panel, on Tuesday, call “Open-Air Centers 2005: The Game Show” that will deal with the best ways to fill an empty anchor, the future of the supermarket industry, and other issues. Hutensky recently spoke with GSR about his experiences with at the Spring Convention, as well as his sector of the industry in general.

GSR: How important is the Spring Convention to your business?

Hutensky: The Spring Convention is clearly the focal point of our year. Our company is buying shopping centers around the country, and it is a very efficient way to meet the retailers, brokers, lenders and service providers that our business depends on. I think our industry is about relationships, and the Spring Convention is like working the biggest room of the year, and getting to see as many old friends as possible and meet as many new ones.

GSR: Is it a more effective convention, as far as getting deals done, than ICSC’s regional meetings?

Hutensky: I think it’s different. Our business is national, so if you have a national business, you tend to see people from all over the country. When you go to a big regional event you see people from a third of the United States, but those events are real important as well. I wouldn’t minimize those events, but for a national event, this is really important and efficient.

GSR: Since the Spring Convention keeps growing every year, does it make it more difficult to get business done, or is it easier?

Hutensky: I think it’s made it different. Now you have a whole, new group of people from municipalities, around the world, and people interested in things beside just pure retail. The group of all those people probably gives you more opportunity. It’s just more people that you have an opportunity to meet. I think there are different phases of the convention. You’re making appointments during the leasing mall, there are education components, there’s the trade show, so in all of those areas, you end up seeing more people you work with.

GSR: You’re on a lot of ICSC panels. What made you decide to get so involved with the organization?

Hutensky: I guess I see it as a great opportunity to give back to an industry and trade organization that have give me and our company so much. One of the great byproducts of getting involved is that I’ve met a great deal of my friends and most important business contact through planning programs, teaching and speaking. I really like it too, so that helps. But I think it is giving back, helping other people who are in the early stages of career or have a problem that they need some help with.

GSR: It seems like people are so willing to share ideas at these events. Is there any fear that you’re helping your competition?

Hutensky: There’s about 44,000 shopping centers in the United States, so there’s certainly a lot for everybody and a lot of retailers. If people are trading ideas, the end result is that people come away from the discussion with more ideas they had than when they started it. Surely, if I have a tenant that’s in my site, perhaps I’m not going to tell someone the rent they’re willing to pay, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity to exchange information and ideas without hurting yourself, and in some ways, helping yourself because some day they could have something to help you with, and you wouldn’t want them to hold back. I think that’s the attitude.

GSR: Do you think people take advantage of the convention’s educational sessions as well as they should, or do you think some attendees take them for granted?

Hutensky: This is the annual convention of our industry, and while it’s a time for deal making, it’s also a time for learning about new products in the tradeshow, and new ideas in the educational programs. I think most people want a balance. But there’s so many things going on in our convention, there’s no way you can do all of them at the same time. People have to make decisions. The idea is that there’s something for everybody. The people who want to do deal making can do that every minute the entire time they’re there. Those who want education can get almost all education all the time. That’s what’s so great about it. It caters to everybody who comes, not just a small group or a subset.

GSR: What are the biggest changes you’re seeing in the open-air sector?

Hutensky: One of the major changes is clearly the addition of mixed-use and lifestyle components to both new centers and redeveloped open-air centers. The retail stores are taking on new architectural looks and configurations, and the industry is going from being pure retail to sometimes including residential, office, educational, transportation and entertainment components. But far from being a threat, in the long run, this is going to make open-air centers more vital and more useful because they’re changing with the reality of what communities want.

GSR: Do you think there are any misconceptions about lifestyle centers in the industry?

Hutensky: Yes, I think it starts at what the definition should be. There are certainly centers that are called lifestyle centers that don’t match ICSC’s definition. It’s really talking about a target income level, a type of architecture, a certain size. I think that the idea of lifestyle centers being the panacea of our industry is certainly not accurate. But there are many locations that they can be extremely successful and cost effective for the retailers involved and for the owners.

GSR: Are they being overbuilt?

Hutensky: With the loosest definition, you’re probably talking about 150 lifestyle centers in the United States, and like I said, there are 44,000 centers in total. It’s hard to even compare. I would say of the 150, most of them are not true lifestyle centers.

GSR: What is the biggest challenge open-air centers are facing?

Hutensky: One of the biggest challenges is the continued consolidation of the supermarket industry. We’re already starting to see some of that. Clearly, when it’s all done, the survivors will be stronger, but the store closings are going to leave some centers with vacant boxes. But I think shopping center people are creative, and most see change as an opportunity more than a challenge.

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