There’s trouble in Rio.
The biggest crowd, it seems, is those wacky gold frogs that decorate the long, rectangular pool in the funky Midtown shopping center.
At its slowest times, the striking, two-level center of blue aluminum siding, white structural steel and swirly neon has the ambiance of an empty can. Despite its acclaim for architectural daring, Rio hasn’t yet become the popular entertainment and retail mecca that its developer, Ackerman & Co., had hoped.
Richard J. DiFiore, president of Ackerman’s retail division, predieted even more tenants will falter in the wake of recent closings by apparel retailers Benetton and Generic Clothing Co. as well as Dawson’s Yogurt.
But, he said, don’t blame it on Rio.
"The good retailers are doing business. There is traffic down here at lunch and at dinner," he said. "It’s just a fact of life that some retailers are better than other retailers."
For sure, Rio is trying to establish a toehold in an intensely competitive market at a time when retailing everywhere is Sluggish. Many malls and shopping centers across the country are begging for tenants.
And last summer’s heavily advertised reopening of Underground Atlanta also hurt by luring some conventioneers and out-of-towners who otherwise may have ventured to Rio, Mr, DiFiore said.
But even those visitors who venture to Rio at Piedmont and North avenues aren’t always pleased with what they find.
"There are no people," complained Markus Curschellas, a Zurich, Switzerland, resident visiting Atlanta last week with his wife, Monika.
The couple walked around the center but did not go into any of the stores. “I don’t like to go into shops where you can see no one inside,” he said.
This reaction to the dearth of stores and shoppers, obviously, worries the 21 tenants at Rio, which has room for 45 stores. Many fret over the inability of Ackerman to fill up the 125,000-square-foot center, which opened in the fall of 1988.
Its newest tenant isn’t even a retailer. It’s the campaign headquarters of George Berry, a candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor.
Even some of Rio’s strongest establishments said the center needs to move swiftly to bring back disappointed shoppers and attract new ones, especially those moving in as part of Midtown’s residential resurgence. Attracting more tenants is crucial, they said.
"People don’t want to come to an empty place to shop. It is no fun," said Elizabeth L. Bell, regional manager for Lettuce Souprise You Inc., a soup-and-salad bar restaurant and one of several eateries that said it is doing well despite Rio’s problems.
"The more stores, the more people, the more business," added Wally Ahluwalia, president of Heera of India, an Indian restaurant.
But the center’s management said Rio — which is Spanish for “river” — isn’t about to become a dusty relic. It’s recovering from a rough start that involved some unwise “panic leasing” just before the center opened, Mr. DiFiore said.
"It is more important for us to make good deals with good merchants, rather than just put warm bodies in there," he said. "We are taking the long view. We have told (the tenants) we have to walk before we can run."
Mr. Berry, he explained, was an exception because he sought a short-term lease. Rio recently signed leases with two tenants that will open in the fall, Mr. DiFiore said. They are General Nutrition Center and Art Play Inc., a theater school.
He added that “serious negotiations” are under way with nine potential tenants, including an operator for the now-closed cafe in the center court.
One of Rio’s new tenants, jeweler Abubackarr Yanssaneh, said his business has picked up since he leased 700 square feet in February.
"I like it because it is safe and clean," he said. "Unfortunately, all of the space is not filled up. But once it is, it will be a great mall."
Mr. DiFiore said he expects Rio to be fully occupied within two years. Currently, he said, about 60 percent of its square footage is occupied.
"It takes awhile to get the product right," said Mr, DiFiore, explaining that since he joined Ackerman in February he’s pushed to bring in a new mix of retailers.
The Atlanta developer hasn’t veered from its original plan of developing Rio as an entertainment and restaurant center that caters to the office crowd at lunch and intown residents at dinner, Mr. DiFiore said.
He added, however, Rio has to do more to cater to residents. Toward that end, Ackerman is seeking a new operator for the large space occupied by Carmine’s Gourmet Market because, he said, “right now you can’t buy a loaf of bread or a pack of cigarettes in there.”
Dave Savino, general manager of the Carmine’s store, said he’s aware that talks are under way. Carmine Giardini, owner of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Carmine’s, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Wallace Kuralt, owner of the popular Renaissance Bookshop, said he’s heartened by the recruitment of more traditional stores. He said he’d like to see a drugstore locate there because that would generate badly needed repeat business for the center.
Even though the bookstore’s business started off “like a house afire” when the store opened in April 1989, it hasn’t grown as fast as Mr. Kuralt has expected, “It is disappointing, but understandable said the brother of CBS News personality Charles Kuralt. “We are not getting enough walking traffic.”
That complaint is common among current and former tenants.
"You could go there at 1 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, and you could count the people there on one hand," said Bob Volz, co-owner of the Green River Trading Company store, which closed last October.
But Mr. DiFiore, noting that Lettuce Souprise You and Crab House attract sizable crowds, disagreed that traffic is lacking.
He noted that the base of potential customers is growing, with new housing sprouting behind Rio and the construction of Citizens and Southern Corp.’s 55-story headquarters building nearby.
Rio’s proximity to the Fox Theatre, the Atlanta Civic Center and the North Avenue MARTA station also should be a boon to traffic. But the biggest help, tenants said, would be more stores.
"Most people like Rio," said Urlene Jackson, co-owner of Sweet Splurges Inc., a dessert cafe. "They see the potential, but they wonder when it is going to happen."
Credit: Burritt, Chris. The Atlanta Constitution [Atlanta, Ga] 03 June 1990: H1