Guest Column by Retail Strategies
Retail and restaurants play a big part in a vibrant downtown, but it can be challenging for city and community leaders to understand their downtown real estate and how you can be proactive in its development. Whether you have a completely vacant Main Street or have recently had positive momentum downtown, here are 5 key topics and takeaways to create and implement a sensible retail real estate plan for your downtown.
Q1. Property owners are difficult to work with or absent and their buildings are not desirable for business owners. What can we do?
A1. The first and most important step – inventory your downtown properties. Then color code by level of severity and code enforcement opportunities. Make code compliance a priority.
Next – gain understanding of why property owners let their building sit vacant. Is it a tax write-off? Are they asking too much for rent? Are they effectively marketing their site?
Third step – be proactive to drive activity. Vacant Storefront Tax Ordinances require that owners of vacant commercial properties submit information to a registry and pay an annual fee if the property remains vacant. Your municipality can track and monitor vacant properties, establish a dialogue with property owners to understand the nature of the vacancy, and develop strategies to help the owner either rent the space, temporarily activate it, or adhere to minimum standards for the appearance and maintenance of the property.
Q2. How can our city work with property owners who want to invest back into their building?
A2. Façade grant programs stimulate short and long-term changes. Encouraging code compliance and beautification of the property while rewarding local property owners with grant funds is a win-win-win for the city, the property owner, and the prospective business tenant.
Q3. How can our city work with store and restaurant owners to encourage them to locate downtown?
A3. Anything that will help a business owner in their first 100 days such as rent concessions on the front end, grants to help with early overhead costs or façade updates, or incentives to locate in a city-owned business incubator or shared space.
Q4. What types of businesses do best downtown? What are new trends in downtown retail real estate?
A4. Hottest retail categories include grocery, home and garden, pet care, beauty salons and fitness studios. Coffee shops and restaurants with outdoor spaces and carryout options are always great options. Find out what your city’s retail leakage categories include to start a category prospect list. Having your property inventory list (as mentioned in Q1/A1) is vital to ensuring these desired categories can locate and move into a property that meets their needs.
Q5. What about residential spaces on upper floors above retail spaces? A5. Downtown living is a hot trend but requires planning, time and resources from the city and property owners. Check your zoning, codes, and ordinances for residential options. Changing a historic commercial building into housing has challenges with ADA compliance, fire codes, electricity and plumbing but there are grants to help offset rehabilitation costs. But having residents downtown creates activity and ambassadors as no one tells your downtown’s story better than those who live there.