Empty retail space? Cut it down to size.

Mandan, North Dakota, has this great downtown. There’s all kinds of housing right downtown, so that’s a big asset keeping people spending time downtown. There’s a mix of new and old retail space downtown, so there is room to expand on what they already have. And that’s a problem: the new retail space is sitting empty. They are not alone in the problem. Across the river in Bismarck, North Dakota, there’s a lot of new life and new activity downtown, but there is also a problem with at least one recently refurbished building: the downstairs retail space has been sitting empty.

In every small town I’ve ever visited there is the same problem: at least a couple of retail buildings sitting vacant. 

Here’s my answer: break it up. 

Look at Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Shops @ MoDiv. A developer, frustrated by empty retail space they couldn’t rent, decided to try an experiment. They cut the big space into 10 small and easy-to-reconfigure spaces. The smallest are the size of a closet and the biggest, a bedroom. Even the entryway is being shared by three local artists. 

“You couldn’t get me out with a crowbar,” artist Rose Ellis said in a news story. “It’s the best business plan I never thought of. It has turned my life around.”

Look at what Fort Wayne, Indiana, is doing with tiny retail spaces carved out of a single building. They’re calling it the City Exchange. Twelve shops share the space with only 150 to 550 square feet each, plus space for a short-term pop-up and space for a kiosk. It’s an affordable place to get started and learn before moving to a bigger space. 

“It’s not supposed to be a place to stay. It’s a place to grow,” the manager Jack Ellsworth said in a news story

Look at Washington, Iowa. Cathy Lloyd took an old department store building and built an entire village of shops inside it. She even added a courtyard with chairs for lounging and pushcarts for even smaller retail ventures. Then she brought in artists to cover the remaining wall space. 

“I truly believe that this is the future of retail in small communities,” Cathy said in a story at Small Biz Survival. Cathy is a pioneer, starting on her idea in 2007, long before the big towns got in on it.

This was the most popular idea from my talk at Big Ideas for Small Communities, with several people telling me they want to try this in their town.  

Want to take a first step toward this kind of small space for your town? Run a Pop-up Fair in empty buildings or on your sidewalks to bring people downtown, to give business owners a taste of retail and to build some momentum. Deb Brown and I have a Pop-Up Fair mini-course to walk you through it, or you can just take the idea and do it in your town right away. http://saveyour.town/pop-ups/ 

Jeanne Cole and the Waynoka Chamber of Commerce actually did a Pop-up Fair, and she shares her experience in an interview here

Start thinking now about which buildings are a good target for tiny retail in your small town, and then give a copy of this article to the building owner. You’ll still have a lot of work to do, but this may get you started.

Keep shaping the future of your small town,