We hear it in every town we visit, "Our downtown looks abandoned. There are so many vacant buildings."
Usually this is due to what we call the "Small Town Perfect Storm" which is caused by the trifecta of:
Loss of residents due to a loss of industry (textiles, manufacturing, etc.)
Building owners who aren't reasonable in their pricing based on condition of the building or not willing to make needed repairs needed to rent/sale
Short-term tenants with an idea and a dream, but no solid funding source or business plan to sustain the business long-term
Don't think your town is alone in this battle. The storm claims many victims in rural America, but we are here to help you weather the storm once and for all.
Top 5 Tips for Filling Vacant Buildings:
Main Street Makeover: Everyone loves a good makeover, including prospective tenants and owners. Even if the building isn't ready to occupy, dress it up as if it is. Give the front window display a good cleaning. Ask the owner to put some curtains in the window, if suitable, or consider leasing space in the window to an existing business that will do a nice display. Businesses one block off Main Street love renting window space that has more visibility and gives them an opportunity to showcase their product or service and direct customers to their business.
Put on a Show: Once a month hold a tour of spaces for prospective business owners. This gives them the opportunity to tour the buildings, speak with the owners, talk to zoning or building inspectors, and learn how the town works with new businesses to welcome them into the community. Consider coordinating with the counties Small Business Center to have someone on-site to take appointments and work with the "dreamers" to put together a solid business plan. Call a local banker that specializes in small business loans and have them on-site as well to speak with prospective owners/tenants. Invite current business owners that can speak to their success in the town and offer suggestions and insights from one business owner to another.
Promote, Promote, Promote! Give building owners an incentive for working with the town to get their building filled. Reward owners willing to give you a set rental price and make standard repairs needed to rent the space with a free listing on the town or Economic Development website for their building space. Share in the town's newsletter, if you have one, or in a Chamber announcement to county wide businesses. Promote it on Facebook, do a live tour of the space, post historic information/stories about what was once in the building. People love connecting to the past and sometimes it might just inspire someone to make a move.
Create a Mixed-Use Space: In small towns you tend to have small businesses and BIG buildings which makes for higher rent prices that most new small businesses can't afford. By creating a mixed-use space, the building can act as an incubator for small businesses as they start out. Then, as they grow their need for more space grows and usually if they've had success in a certain location they will look for a new space in and around that same location. Get creative, is there an old building that the county or town owns that currently isn't being used? See if it could be transformed into a mixed-use space fairly easy if there aren't any vacant building owners willing to do a mixed-use space. Ultimately the town will benefit as they help support small businesses and hopefully remain in the town and move up to a vacant building as they grow.
Use Suggestive Marketing: Sometimes people are limited by their own vision, or lack thereof. Realtors see it all the time, people can't see past what the house currently is. It's the same with vacant buildings, especially old ones. Help prospective business owners see what the building could be. Put a sign up in the window that lists the best uses for the space. If it happens to be a coffee shop or a bakery, set up a pop-up stand and serve fresh coffee and hot muffins for a few days, people will see how great it would be to have a coffee shop or bakery at that location. Then when it's gone they will miss it. See if owners would be willing to rent out the building during holidays or special events to vendors. That way event traffic would flow into the building, know it's available, and if a vendor does exceptionally well, who knows, they may decide to open a brick and mortar store.
At the end of the day the best way to fill vacant buildings is to stay positive and encourage building owners and prospective business owners on what the building could be. Figure out how to involve them not just with renting their building but with other town activities. When people are a part of a community they feel more inclined to help that community. We all know this works. How many of us volunteer more than we have time to just because we care about our community and want to see it succeed? Go ahead, raise your hands, you know you do. If you don't, hopefully now you feel guilty and we will see you at the next event :)
Need more inspiration? Check out this study on new businesses started in small towns, the way they got started, the communities they serve, the gap they filled, and how it was financed.