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4 Pros Who Make ICSC and Marketplaces Tick: ICSC Trustees’ Distinguished Service Award Winners

May 16, 2022

The Trustees’ Distinguished Service Award recognizes volunteers who have gone above and beyond in their service to ICSC and the marketplaces industry. This year’s recipients come from diverse backgrounds but share an extraordinary commitment to giving back. They have spent countless hours organizing and speaking on panels, running regional and national events, overhauling ICSC educational materials, working with the next generation of leaders and more. Below, this year’s winners share details about their career paths and motivation for ICSC volunteering.

On a car trip through the village of Barrington, Illinois, Peggy Blanchard’s 4-year-old granddaughter looked out the window and shouted, “There’s Grandma’s building!” It was the 28,000-square-foot Barrington Village Center, one of several downtown projects Blanchard has spearheaded over her 40-year economic-development career. “It’s fun to drive with my grandkids and say to them, ‘See that building? It was my project,’” she said. “I can show them how I played an important role in redeveloping the suburban landscape of several communities that are still successful and growing.”

Those communities include the Chicagoland suburbs of Downers Grove, Highland Park, La Grange and, most recently, Algonquin, where Blanchard is an economic development consultant on a downtown redevelopment and several retail and residential projects.

In representing cities and towns in such public-private partnerships, Blanchard draws on knowledge and network connections gained from 41 years of participation in ICSC. A RECon regular for a quarter century, she co-chairs ICSC’s P3 Advisory Committee and previously served as ICSC Central Division P3 Public Sector Chair.

The advisory committee’s recent work has included studying how evolving land use patterns, including department store and regional mall closures, affect zoning, as well as brainstorming on incentives programs that will further catalyze public-private partnerships. “As the marketplace changes, it will be essential for the public and private sectors to work together on the future land use of commercial real estate,” Blanchard said. Committee members also helped write the second edition of ICSC’s Retail as a Catalyst for Economic Development, a guide for forging successful public-private partnerships, with nine new case studies. “It was a great collaboration,” she said.

The Ohio native started attending ICSC events in 1981 while working to revitalize the shared Main Street of the villages of East and West Dundee, Illinois. Her volunteering for ICSC began in 2006 as co-chair of the Illinois ICSC Alliance, a position she held until 2009.

ICSC involvement, Blanchard said, has directly benefited the communities she serves. One developer she met at RECon partnered with the village of Barrington on a major mixed-use project. Blanchard also learned at ICSC events how to create marketing and media plans and how to connect with retailers. “I learned from the best mall marketing directors in the Chicagoland area and adopted their strategies into my redevelopment strategies,” Blanchard explained. “I was so fortunate to have met these mentors early in my career.”

Being a part of the public-private partnership discussion also has helped her stay current on approaches that maximize collaboration. Back in the 1980s, for example, tax-increment financing was a primary instrument in such partnerships, but over the years, 99-year land leases have come to the fore, often with sales tax-sharing agreements and amortized development fees that make it easier for projects to pencil. “If you can collaboratively approach development, you can get to a solution that meets both the needs of the community and the developer,” Blanchard said. “And it should always be the goal to move the project through the process quickly.”

Over the years, ICSC members hailing from every discipline have helped Blanchard do her job more effectively, she said. “I’ve had a whole Rolodex of contacts. I could just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey what do you think about this?’ and they have always been more than willing to help. … This is a great honor to be recognized by the one organization that truly framed my career.”

ICSC Bankruptcy Task Force Chair Brian Huben felt a sense of satisfaction in December 2020 when the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which contained $900 billion in stimulus relief for the pandemic, became law. “We were able to work with members of Congress to get amendments to the bankruptcy code that actually encouraged shopping center landlords and tenants to reach consensual agreements for lease modifications, rent deferrals and rent forgiveness,” he said. “It had a significant nationwide impact and benefited both landlords and tenants.”

For the veteran real estate attorney, a managing partner at Ballard Spahr in Los Angeles, it was one of many such gratifying moments in more than 22 years of ICSC membership and volunteering.

His introduction to the marketplaces industry happened by chance. Fresh out of Loyola Law School in the early 1990s, Huben joined a 15-attorney law firm that happened to represent the owner of Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, California. “The firm needed somebody to handle an eviction case for the shopping center, and so I took that case and then another and another,” Huben recalled. “I became the go-to person for shopping center landlord work at that small firm.”

By the late 1990s, Huben had joined the Los Angeles office of a national law firm with a strong focus on the marketplaces industry, Chicago-based Katten Muchin Rosenman. Over the next 17 years, he represented the likes of DDR Corp., now Site Centers; Westfield; Macerich; and Urban Retail Properties in complex litigation, retail bankruptcies and daily operations. “The opportunity was fantastic,” Huben said. “It was also my introduction to ICSC; the partner I was working with said, ‘Brian, if this is the pool you’re going to swim in, you need to get involved.’”

In addition to attending local, national and regional events and speaking on panels — 13 at last count — Huben increasingly has contributed his legal expertise to ICSC’s efforts in state and federal government relations. He has made many trips to Washington, D.C., or the California State Assembly to huddle with lawmakers on issues of importance to landlords and tenants alike. In 2017, the attorney became chair of ICSC’s Southern California Government Relations Committee. “You get the opportunity to provide real-life examples of why a particular piece of legislation is helpful or detrimental,” Huben said. “Government relations work can be taxing at times, but it is also highly rewarding.”

Huben also cites the satisfaction of helping out during COVID and its aftermath, from advising members during emergency ICSC webinars to drafting lease amendments in order to give retailers a fighting chance. The partnership mentality that emerged between some landlords and tenants during this time was remarkable, Huben noted. “In April 2020, I had one Southern California client which, without any prompting at all from its tenants, had me work up a one-page lease amendment that basically said, ‘We’re taking the next three months of rent and rolling it over; you can pay it back in 12 equal installments in 2021.’ That was unprecedented.”

Huben also recently served on ICSC’s New Retail Study Lease Model Task Force, a consortium of legal experts that evaluated and updated ICSC’s Shopping Center Study Lease. “It’s a wonderful benefit for ICSC members,” he said. “It allows smaller landlords or tenants to get that first draft done and then turn it over to attorneys. They avoid incurring significant upfront costs in the preliminary negotiations for those lease terms.”

As Huben sees it, the hours of volunteering for ICSC have been well worth it, yielding both lifelong friendships and valuable business contacts. “It might sound a bit hyperbolic,” he said, “but I would not be where I am today if it were not for ICSC.”

As chair of ICSC’s Legal Advisory Council, Tom Phillips helps ICSC decide when and where to take a stand on critical legal issues, including in amicus curiae briefs filed in federal and state appellate courts. These are just the latest examples of the veteran real estate attorney, a partner and chair of the global leasing practice at international law firm Brown Rudnick, playing a role in the evolution of ICSC and the broader marketplaces industry.

A 1987 graduate of Boston University School of Law, Phillips started his retail real estate work in 1991 with a type of project that would become increasingly common in the decades to follow, repositioning a foreclosed regional mall. In this case, it was downtown Boston’s Lafayette Place, formerly owned by Canadian developer Robert Campeau, who had become swamped in debt after acquiring retail conglomerate Allied Stores and Federated Department Stores in the late ’80s. “He over-levered and underperformed and ended up losing the mall to the bank,” Phillips said.

Having thus ventured into the world of shopping centers, Phillips started to focus his practice on retail. “I’ve been at it ever since,” he said.

Not long after, the young attorney was representing Walmart in its first land acquisitions in Massachusetts, dozens of self-development deals that were part of an emerging shift toward category killers and big-box stores. “Walmart was creating a brand-new model and determining where retail would be developed in the region for the next 30 years,” Phillips recalled. “A lot of it was farmland or undeveloped or former industrial land. They were the only ones buying it. They beat their competition to the punch by years.”

Phillips was representing another rapidly expanding U.S. retailer, office superstore Staples, when he joined ICSC in the late 1990s. He soon would help establish ICSC’s Next Generation program in New England; organize and run the New England Idea Exchange conference; become ICSC state director for Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont; lead the Eastern division ambassador program; and serve for more than a decade in various capacities on the Legal Advisory Council.

Along the way, the Boston native has been a prolific speaker at ICSC events. His presentations have included Legal Issues in Mixed-Use Developments; David vs. Goliath: Negotiating on Behalf of Tenants with Little Leverage; and The Furious Five of Leasing: Concepts Every Retail Attorney Must Master. “In the early years of attending the ICSC Law Conference, I learned so much from listening to others as they described the deals they had done or how they had solved problems for clients,” Phillips said. “So now I give back.”

Phillips’ ICSC leadership journey began with the simple act of walking up to the Massachusetts state director in 2003 and saying, “I would like to volunteer. What can I do?” His subsequent contributions, including co-founding and co-chairing the Boston Next Generation committee and being part of the national Next Gen Advisory Group, made it easier for others to get involved at higher levels. “Prior to Next Gen, it was not easy to break into and rise in volunteer leadership at ICSC,” Phillips noted. “To some degree, traditional players were passing the torch generationally inside their own companies. Next Gen brought about a huge change.”

That’s gratifying to Phillips, who has forged hundreds of personal and professional relationships in his decades with ICSC. Some of those fellow members have even toasted his birthday with him at the spring conference in Las Vegas. “The calendar allows me to be home with my family for my birthday only once every several years,” Phillips said. “Otherwise, I’m at ICSC in Vegas. I sometimes joke that the ICSC world is my alternate family.”

To better appreciate Angela Sweeney’s 30-year journey in the marketplaces industry and ICSC, consider the contrasts: Sweeney started in the industry at the age of 15 dressed as a Christmas elf at her local mall, then went on to hold marketing positions of increasing responsibility at major names like Urban Retail Properties, The Rouse Co., The Mills Corp., Madison Marquette and Peterson Cos. Now an executive leading Imaginuity’s Pylot digital marketing platform for property owners and other clients, Sweeney has worked at the intersection of technology and portfolio marketing ever since creating one of Urban Retail’s first websites in the early 1990s.

With respect to ICSC, she went from cramming for her Certified Marketing Director exam early in her career to co-chairing the committee that rewrote the test after digital marketing came to the fore. Her ICSC contributions have included teaching at the John T. Riordan Schools for Retail Real Estate Professionals and The University of Shopping Centers, as well as contributing to major events like the NOI+ Conference, RECon, the Maxi Awards and Mid-Atlantic Conference & Deal Making. She ran the latter show for six years as ICSC state director for Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia. “We produced some amazing dealmaking conferences and educational programs,” Sweeney said. “It was a great way to give back to an industry that I have spent my entire career in.”

Sweeney joined Urban Retail after earning her bachelor’s degree from Maryland’s Towson University. Over the next 11 years, she learned the ropes of traditional mall marketing — producing events, negotiating sponsorships, running multimedia ad campaigns and generating publicity for Urban’s new developments like The Streets at Southpoint and Brandon Town Center.

She went on to serve as a regional marketing manager for both The Rouse Co. and The Mills Corp., where her job increasingly involved using the opportunities presented by the internet. By the time Madison Marquette tapped her to become marketing vice president in 2006, the iPhone and the rise of social media were just on the horizon. Sweeney’s executive-level job included setting the marketing direction for a 23 million-square-foot portfolio, developing national brand guidelines, launching more than 20 websites and, eventually, integrating portfoliowide social media programs into the company’s online presence and customer relationship management platform.

As mobile use was taking off, Sweeney joined efforts to plan Mocial, a new ICSC conference designed to catalyze discussion, innovation and best practices in marketing tech. She co-chaired the event in 2014 and 2015. “We really brought together people who were at the forefront of deploying digital marketing technology in the retail real estate space,” Sweeney said. “It’s a field that keeps on evolving and changing, with applications in commercial real estate that, to me, are just limitless. It’s why I’m so excited about my current role at Imaginuity; I’m helping people who sit in chairs like mine for the past 25 years take advantage of these tools to work smarter, not harder.”

Sweeney’s marketing prowess, she says, owes in part to so many years of brainstorming with fellow ICSC members. “I’ve met so many amazing individuals along the way in ICSC who have become not only industry peers but also lifelong friends,” she said. “The benefits of getting involved in ICSC far outweigh any sacrifice you might make in terms of time or commitment. I would encourage anyone who is considering it to just do it.”

By Joel Groover

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today

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