The Tour of Empty Buildings

My friend Deb Brown is the new director of the Webster City, Iowa, Chamber of Commerce. It’s her first job as chamber director in her long career of wide experiences, so she doesn’t look at chamber things the way most people do.

Deb looked at the empty store fronts downtown and other available buildings around town as opportunities. So she and her new team in Webster City decided to hold a Tour of Empty Buildings. It’s frickin’ brilliant, if you’ll pardon my enthusiasm.

  • She started by gathering intelligence on the open buildings from the county records.
  • From that she was able to contact building owners.
  • She arranged to have a construction professional and the city manager walk through the buildings with her.
  • She paired up local realtors with owners to be point people on the tour, fielding questions about what businesses could be a good fit, square footage, cost, condition and so on.
  • She asked her Chamber Champions (the chamber volunteers, mostly retired folks) to attend and share more community history and background about the buildings, “to tell the stories of what used to be there – to share in the glory days and paint the picture of what might be possible.”
  • She got the city, county and chamber all on board.

She ended up with 11 locations on the tour that were for sale or for rent. All the locations are listed in Why Bring Attention to Empty Buildings?

She scheduled the self-guided tour from 5 to 7 pm on one evening, with a meeting at the local grocery store after the tour for coffee and cookies. She promoted it all over. “We put up posters around town, had the local paper cover a story or two on it, advertised on the radio and in the paper – and of course all over social media.” She also got two business teachers at the community college to share the tour in their business classes.

Why tour empty buildings?

To take advantage of human nature. People are curious, and they like to talk. 

Deb said, “We’d like all the people that can come, to attend and see what spaces are available and then to go home and talk about it. Share what they saw with their friends, their church community, and their businesses.

“Because somewhere in this town and county is a person who is looking to locate in one of those buildings. Somewhere there is a kid just out of college who wants to move home and live and work here. Somewhere there is a person with a desire to be an entrepreneur.”

Sounds swell, but what about results: Did it work?

1. All the participating buildings were cleaned up to be presented.

If you are from a small town, you know that this is a big deal.

2. People all over town and the surrounding area are talking about what could be possible.

That’s an important shift. Webster City has a population of about 8,800. It had been home to an Electrolux manufacturing plant employing 850 workers. In 2009 the city was notified it would be closed. In March 2011, it was closed for good. The loss of such a high percentage of jobs has been tough, even though it has been two years. This tour represents a shift the people of the town are making from “what used to be” thinking to “what could be” thinking.

3. Real estate transactions are now in progress.

At least one building is in the process of negotiations for a sale. One young attorney who lives in town, but works out of town is considering bringing her practice home. 

One businesswoman has started a coworking space that opens August 1, and the building owner is working very closely with her.  They are bringing in three new businesses to town who will share the coworking space. 

One building owner has put two of their vacant store fronts into an incubation program that the Chamber has just started.  These two buildings are part of the 11 buildings from the tour.  There is one person already working on her business plan and bringing a new business to town to be part of the incubator program.

4. By promoting the available buildings, Webster City is showing a welcome sign to entrepreneurs and businesses.

“There are several people in our community that are graduating from Iowa Central with entrepreneurial degrees,” Deb said. “They will want to stay at home and work in their home town. We’ve let them know that they have place here.”

5. National attention has been drawn to Webster City.

And that means more people on their website, more people asking questions and more people coming to town. 

You can read the full results, including names of those who helped make it possible, here: The Tour–Declared a Success.

What next?

Deb isn’t standing still. “We’re stepping up our game now,” Deb said. “We are in discussion with Iowa State University Design professors to have their classes come work with us to take pics of the empty story fronts and make designs of what it could look like. We will then have a wine/cheese gallery opening in a local bank and then keep the pics there for 1 month so the town can come in and check it out too! We should know by August if it’s a go — but if not, we will work with the high school teachers and do the same thing.”

Deb also started an Incubator program because of the tour.  She had an engineer and construction company owner approach her with an idea.  Why not offer an hour of free consulting to new owners or renters in the tour building?  From that discussion, one of the building owners said “and we would love to be part of an incubator program!” 

Two towns have told me they are doing something similar, based on this idea. What about you? Have some empty buildings you’d like to fill in your town?