Business Profile

At the Centre of It All
by Emily Zulz

Metro Centre offers a small-town, Main Street feel to your shopping experience, where you know the person behind the register and they know you.

Growing up, Eric Brinker’s summers were often spent around Metro Centre, which his grandfather, Marvin Goodman, founded in 1971. At the time, not many retail destinations existed in Peoria. It was—and still is—at the “center of it all.”

Brinker grew up in Dallas, and whenever he visited, he felt that Metro Centre was like a village or a “Main Street.” “I think that’s what I always really liked—the Main Street feel that Metro Centre had that I didn’t have in the town I was from,” he said. “It was fun to come here—my grandpa would walk up and down, and he knew everybody. He was kind of like the mayor, as far as I was concerned.”

When his grandfather passed away last year at the age of 90, Brinker took over the family business. “We’ve decided we’re absolutely keeping this in our family and operating it that way,” he said.

Some Valuable Lessons

In the mid-‘90s, Brinker studied broadcast communications and marketing at Bradley University. Just four days after he graduated in May 1998, he started a job in New York City.

He went to work for Cendant Corporation, a consumer services company then in its first year of business. After two and a half years, Brinker moved on. He had the opportunity to be a founding member of a new media startup company called Satmark Media Group that tried to build a network of web-enabled ATM machines. However, the company went out of business after just a year. “I learned some valuable lessons—like seeing the conference room table get repossessed,” Brinker said with a chuckle.

Meanwhile, he had become aware of a startup airline in New York City that eventually would become known as Jet Blue. In 2001, he became part of the airline’s original marketing team, helping to define the onboard and overall customer experience for the airline. Brinker was with Jet Blue for more than seven years, and still maintains consulting ties with the company, yet Metro Centre has become his full-time job.

Brinker didn’t always imagine himself becoming owner of Metro Centre. “It kind of was a little sudden, but, that said, my grandpa had been preparing me for many years,” he said. “I just didn’t know what my role would be.”

Is It Going To Play In Peoria?

Brinker learned a great deal from his grandfather over the years, so much that he and his mother, Nancy Brinker, have even discussed writing a book on the subject. “The working title is 30, 60, 90,” he said. “We all have these 30-year perspectives on making an impact...My mom’s made an impact on the baby boomers, and my grandfather, growing up in almost the Great Depression era, created a very disciplined business.”

Nancy Brinker was recently acknowledged as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People for her support for breast cancer research. She founded the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation in honor of her sister in 1982, was named ambassador to Hungary in 2001 and currently serves as chief of protocol in the White House.

The biggest lesson Brinker picked up from his grandfather concerned fiscal responsibility. “My grandfather was the kind of person who never justified taking on an excess amount of leverage that couldn’t allow him to negotiate directly and be in control.” Brinker shares these same ideals. He’s not going to take on debt just because he can—there has to be a business model to back up what is being done. “It’s got to work,” he explained. “I mean, I have a lot of cool ideas that I’d love to bring to Peoria just because they’re things I want to do, but is it really going to work in Peoria? Is it going to play in Peoria?”

Much of what Brinker has done since taking over Metro Centre relates back to his grandfather’s principle. His plans for continuously improving and investing in the Centre are steady and measured, with a number of cosmetic changes already put in place.

Flags were put up outside, and the buildings were painted. A new LED sign was added to the front entrance to provide high-quality, interactive messages to passersby. He invested in Main Street- style park benches, trash receptacles and matching planters for up and down the walkway. Significant landscaping has been done as well, starting at the entrance and working its way out. Improvements were made to the parking lot, with potholes and uneven areas replaced, stripes repainted and a seal-coating process applied. In the farmers’ market, a new seating area was added this year.

The Vital Centre

Metro Centre provides approximately 225 jobs and remains about 90 percent leased. Located at one of the busiest intersections in the city, more than 55,000 cars pass in front of the entrance each day. “I wouldn’t trade our location for anything in the city,” Brinker said. “I think as fuel prices continue to go up, the convenience of Metro Centre is going to become even more appealing.”

With its location in the center of the city, Metro Centre truly feels like a community. Brinker, a fan of new urbanism, believes there is no shopping center in town better positioned to take advantage of its concepts of pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development.

New expansion plans call for a mixed-use retail/residential project, with residential units to be constructed above retail with full and partial views of the Lakeview nature preserve. Additional plans call for a new facade, revised sidewalks to include seating areas, new carriage light fixtures, improved traffic flow and an expanded farmers’ market with a farm-themed children’s play area, more seating and walkways. With these developments, Metro Centre hopes to create a park-like neighborhood within your shopping
experience.

Brinker said Metro Centre will do its part to keep the entire area around the shopping center thriving. “I’m going to do everything in my power, while I’m here, to continue what my grandpa was doing to keep this area vital.”

He recognizes that keeping a shopping center thriving in the age of the Internet will be a struggle. While he strives to retain the benefits of the old-town shopping experience, he knows this isn’t easy in the “whatever-whenever” culture of today. The Internet has caused a sea change in retail, with anything and everything available at the click of a button to be shipped directly to your house. “That’s something that—when my grandfather created Metro Centre—that notion didn’t exist.” Brinker said. “You could go to Chicago…or you could go to two places in town, so it’s changed a lot.”

Community Spirit at Metro

The hub of activities that take place at Metro Centre contributes to its community-oriented atmosphere. In 1977, Goodman opened the farmers’ market that still thrives today. More recently, Metro Centre hosted its first-ever dog show this year, and has a number of other unique events planned for future months. Of course, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure remains its signature event. Goodman was Komen’s father, and so Metro Centre has naturally played a significant role in Peoria’s Race from the very beginning.

Brinker also cultivates a community spirit through Metro Centre’s town hall meetings. Staff and merchants meet quarterly for updates on what the Centre is doing, along with tips and suggestions, with a wine and cheese social hour following the meeting. Another component called Metro University brings in guest speakers and training. In one session, all the merchants were trained how to use the automatic defibrillator in the office; in another, everyone learned CPR.

All of these activities help to create a family feeling among Metro Centre tenants. “We want it to be that Main Street feel,” Brinker said, “so that if someone is in Ducky’s trying on his tux, they can say, ‘You should go up to Heaven On Earth. They do these really great flowers. You should pop up there. I’m friends with them.’ We want that.”

Only In Peoria

Metro Centre is the kind of place you can go and know the merchants personally, and they know you, said Brinker. Without Metro Centre, Brinker believes that Peoria becomes more like satellite radio, where everything is national and nothing local. Peoria would become a mere receiver of what every other city gets, which can happen easily, Brinker continued, once you start “rubber stamping shopping malls.”

“If you look at our logo, our tagline says ‘Only in Peoria’ and that’s something I want to stress,” Brinker said. “What makes Metro Centre unique is it’s only in Peoria. It’s not a rubber stamp. It’s not something you’re going to find anywhere else. In my opinion, it’s the character of the city.” IBI

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