By Christi Milligan
Senior Staff Writer
Building upon the success of the last two years, Downtown Delaware’s Project Pop-Up is awarding 13 entrepreneurs rent-free properties during the high- traffic holiday season.
The leases are the culmination of an intense vetting process for coordinators Diane Laird and Ken Anderson, who spent hours scouting properties, reviewing and interviewing applicants and studying the business climate of various main street and city business districts.
Their aim is to connect the hopeful entrepreneur ready for a brick-and- mortar storefront to a downtown community committed to revitalization. It’s an arduous process but well worth the effort if the new businesses taste the same success as their predecessors.
“Truly, you see peoples’ lives being changed,” said Laird, state coordinator for Downtown Delaware, a division of the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO).
With downtown revitalization a slow process by nature, Laird said the accelerated process for getting start-up businesses into storefronts in a matter of months is invigorating. The initiative puts the time-eating and imposing business details in the hands of Laird and Anderson.
“We connect the dots quickly within a framework,” said Anderson, director of Entrepreneurial and Small Business Support at DEDO. “We have the resources to do something that’s very difficult for them to do on their own.”
Downtown Delaware works with designated Main Street programs that have contacts and comprehensive redevelopment programs to streamline the Pop-Up efforts. These contacts are key to Laird and Anderson as they provide the connections to potential storefronts and contribute crucial analysis about the viability of prospective markets in their area.
Business districts that have a committee that meets regularly and a public and private revitalization strategy are the areas of focus for Project Pop-Up. There are seven Main Street Communities in Delaware, according to Anderson.
“We know who the most active towns are, who participated last year, and internally we have an idea of the number of towns we want to engage with,” Anderson added.
It’s not a simple process, but it’s one that works. Six of the eight proprietors who were part of Project Pop-Up in 2012 and 2013 signed long-term leases with their respective property owners and are still in business.
This year, roughly 30 applicants submitted their names for 11 sites. Each applicant must prioritize which property they’re interested in and indicate whether they have a business plan and marketing strategy, particularly social media. “We had less applications than we thought we would,” said Laird. “But, we had quality applications.”
According to Anderson, matching potential applicants to the right storefront requires time and strategy, as they evaluate the potential of each business and which town might be the best fit.
“For example, is this the type of business that’s going to rely on foot traffic? We have to look at the sustainability of that business. Do they have an ecommerce capability? Are they generating revenue from their website which can help them?”
While applicants select their preferred town, Laird said that further discussion sometimes leads them to a different site on the Pop-Up list.
Tracy Skrobot, program manager of Middletown Main Street, said that it’s critical that property owners approached about offering a rent-free storefront get the bigger picture. “It used to be that you could start a business and people would come, but it’s not that way anymore,” she said.
Property owners who partner with the initiative understand the value of enticing a business with the potential to thrive and grow permanent business roots in their community, Skrobot added.
With most of the Pop-Up sites located in small towns throughout the state, the city of Wilmington offers a strategic challenge, – but great opportunities as well, said Laird. “It’s the only urban city and so most of the properties we look at are either too large for the type and state of businesses that typically apply to Pop-Up. The rents are higher.”
Laird said that those factors have forced Project Pop-Up to pursue some Wilmington sites as viable, shorter-term incubator venues, more in keeping with the national Project Pop-Up movement. These sites include three months of free rent, but are not necessarily candidates for long-term leases.
This shift proved successful, and three spaces at Ninth and Shipley Streets will house seven selected start-ups.
Laird and Anderson said that applicants tend to fall into three categories: Professional services, health and nutrition, and food and beverage.
Dover resident Latricia Vicks will move her home-based bakery into a Walnut Street property in Milford this fall. Vicks said the Project Pop-Up Initiative came at a perfect time. “I was actually using space in my church, and then I had to move into my garage and use that as commercial space,” said Vicks.
As the owner of Patty Cakes, a custom cake bakery, Vicks said she was ready to take the next step. She completed an application, reviewed the property, and was called just a few days later. Laird suggested a 1,300 square-foot Milford property as a potentially better fit than Vicks’ original choice, and Vicks ultimately agreed.
“I was in love with it – it was clean and light and airy,” said Vicks, who added that she was taken with the Milford vibe and the promise of a thriving downtown.
Early stage businesses that are generating revenue and have a proven customer base, as well as well-established businesses that are considering expansion were encouraged to apply. Some entrepreneurs have applied every year.
For Vick, the first time was a charm. “It’s so exciting,” she said.
All locations are scheduled to be fully operational by October 1.
Downtown Delaware is a resource center within the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO) that works with communities statewide to address revitalization issues. Particular emphasis is placed on business development, vacancy reduction, and proactive planning for selection and placement of retail goods and services in commercial business districts within Delaware.