A dozen things to do with an empty building

Empty buildings are a big topic in small towns. Several of you have brought up this subject lately, especially after we talked about the Tour of Empty Buildings. 

Chris Miller, of Adrian, Michigan, told me a group of 22 local investors had pooled resources and bought a downtown building. 

Deborah Hicks Midanek, of Grenada, Mississippi, says lots of interesting things are just starting to happen, and she has bought several “gorgeous old” downtown buildings. She’s looking for ideas. 

Ruth R. Nichols, Alcorn State Univeristy, also in Mississippi, says they are planning a “Possibilities Tour” of empty buildings in Natchez. (Great name for the tour, huh?) 

And lots of times at events, I’ve met people who have, one way or another, ended up owning a downtown building, and just aren’t sure what to do with it. 

So, what can we do with these empty buildings? This is a bit different than our usual newsletter, but I wanted to share some ideas I’ve run across, in order to get you to share your ideas, too. 

1. Make a space that multiple businesses can divide and share, like Cathy Lloyd shared from Washington, Iowa. Read about it today at One downtown building gives life to many new retail stores

2. Set up a business incubator. Deb Brown in Webster City, Iowa, is working on this with buildings from the now-famous Tour of Empty Buildings.  

3. Renovate, then lease or sell the building to the city or municipality. That’s how Project Waynoka turned an empty building into the downtown library in Waynoka, Oklahoma. 

4. Make a space for creativity. Harveyville, Kansas, created a conference space and artistic residences

5. Try a pop-up. Set up a temporary store, restaurant, cafe, art gallery, etc., just for the busy season or even one day for a special event.  Here’s how a group of students did pop-ups of an entire set of downtown blocks. 

6. Create a co-working space, like Webster City, Iowa, just did. Here’s a picture

7. Use the upstairs for apartments. Here are some downtown housing resources

8. Use the upstairs for short term lodging, like Julia did in Buffalo, Oklahoma

9. Put it for sale online to lure urban businesses to relocate. Gaylord, Kansas, did that back in 2006. 

Is your building in bad shape? 

10. Rent the front window to another store for a window display. I saw this in my big town of Alva, Oklahoma

11. Clean it up, dress it up, put up lights. Chris Van Patten told me about a building in Buffalo, New York, that put up lights for the holidays, and promptly sold. 

12. Show what it could be. Paint the windows so it looks like a business. Or get an artist or architect to draw what the building could look like with different businesses there. 

Getting buildings up to code and usable can be truly expensive. If the code requirements turn out to be ridiculous, as they sometimes are, you might look into alternative codes for historic properties and reuse of existing structures. If your municipal government is willing to work with you, maybe they’ll allow use of one of these codes designed specifically for older buildings. 

And keep an eye out for the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, to be held September 9-11, 2013 in Philadelphia. Lots of ideas are going to be shared there, too. 

OK, I told you those ideas to ask you for yours. What have you seen done with empty buildings?