No one camped overnight.
But when the doors opened Friday morning in Downtown Palm Beach Gardens on Florida’s sixth REI Co-op, 200 people stood in line, ready to hunt down hiking, camping and boating gear.
Serenaded by cowbell-ringing workers after store manager Age Ramos, accompanied by Palm Beach Gardens Vice Mayor Rachelle Litt and Councilwoman Marcie Tinsley, used a jagged-edge camping saw to cut a red ribbon, shoppers took their free water bottle and spread throughout the 25,000-square-foot store.
What they found within the stark concrete floors and wooden decor in space that formerly housed Urban Outfitters and Toojays is bikes and shoes and clothes and backpacks and camp stoves and knives and kayaks and more.
While past store openings have featured the faithful camped out overnight, only about a dozen people lined up by 10:15 Friday morning, about 45 minutes before opening. The store has been in the works for a year, since Downtown signed the destination retailer as part of its broad overhaul.
Among those waiting in line was Darbie Tressler of Port St. Lucie, who normally travels to the west Boca store with her husband to get their hiking, fishing, paddle boarding and camping needs met.
On Friday, though, she was alone.
“I’ll rub it in my husband’s face that I was here and he wasn’t,” she said as she waited.
Cristina Martinez, a Jupiter wildlife and landscape photographer, said she loved the store for its commitment to community.
“We make trips to Boca just for REI,” she said. “It’s synonymous with community networking. The employees care about where they’re working and they want you to have the best experience.”
Opening in a construction zone
While the store originated in Seattle in 1938 (lifetime membership fee then: $1) and has 174 locations nationwide, it finds Florida a “robust” market and already has 18,000 Palm Beach County lifetime members (lifetime membership fee now: $30).
Undeterred by the construction that will mark its east side for years as a nine-story, 174-room hotel rises within Downtown Palm Beach Gardens, store officials exulted in their spot with a prominent shop front facing the west parking lot just up from Whole Foods.
Even without the demand for winter gear that marks their northern stores, officials say their approach works well in Florida’s year-round outdoor culture.
“Being active outdoors means different things for everybody,” spokeswoman Megan Behrbaum said. “We offer a range of gear and apparel for anyone who’s getting outdoors.”
Les Hatton, director of retail for the Gulf and Ozarks regions, is realistic about one of the pitfalls that comes with being part of a national distribution chain in Florida. “I have a ton of down coats,” he tells managers in other regions.
Dickinson State Park benefits from REI
Ann Marie Superchi of West Palm Beach made a $10 contribution to the Friends of Jonathan Dickinson State Park to get a coffee mug custom-designed for the opening and donated by REI, which partners with select charities near their stores.
She recalled her first encounter with an REI at a store in Connecticut. “It was like being kids in a candy store,” she said. “Finally they open one here.”
Wendy Morse, secretary for the Friends of Jonathan Dickinson group, handed out literature and coffee cups to the opening day crowd, happy to be in line for contributions from REI’s community-giving side. She expected to raise $6,000 over the weekend for improvements to the sprawling state park just north of the Palm Beach County line.
“This is huge for our budget,” she said.
“We’re investing in the community that invests in us,” said Jeanette Honermann, advocacy and impact coordinator, who came in from San Antonio, Texas, for the event.
REI also has Florida stores in west Boca, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tampa and Winter Park, with a Tallahassee store opening later this year.
Opening festivities and giveaways continue all weekend.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.
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