The downtown Akron retail sector is experiencing some of the symptoms of post-COVID pent-up demand.
For real estate.
Each year, the Downtown Akron Partnership (DAP) has a cohort of its Start Downtown program, which aims to match emerging retail entrepreneurs with available space from downtown landlords.
It has always taken more than a year to roll out the funds DAP gets for the program, which in recent years have come from the Hudson’s Burton D. Morgan Foundation in the form of annual grants of $20,000. But it didn’t take that long to find participants this year.
“We went through our funding in two months,” DAP CEO Suzie Graham said without lament. “As soon as we opened the application process, we had a lot of interest in the program this year.”
Although Graham said she would welcome and could use additional funds, she said she was mostly happy to see such interest from new retail businesses to set up shop in downtown storefronts. -town.
“The businesses in these storefronts do more for the culture and character of the downtown community than anything we work on,” Graham said.
The program was launched in 2015. Today, 13 downtown retailers, including bars and restaurants, have found homes through Start Downtown, not including six that were approved for funding this year.
The program works with business owners to help them determine their space needs and preferred locations. He then tries to find a vacant space that suits them. If they are approved and sign a lease, they receive rent subsidies through DAP that pay 80% of their first month’s rent, then 10% less each month for six months. After that, businesses are responsible for paying all of their rent.
The goal is that after six months a new business will be on better footing and will have resolved all early issues related to revenue flowing and operations running smoothly. Start Downtown isn’t meant to prop up businesses that aren’t profitable, but it does make the slope to the deep end of the pool a bit more gradual and forgiving, Graham said.
In addition to rent assistance, DAP helps find help for new business owners, from developing their business plan to legal assistance on leases and other contracts, Graham said. . It also pairs them with other sources of assistance, such as the Akron Resilience Fund run by the Development Finance Authority’s Western Reserve Community Fund to provide low-interest business loans.
Start Downtown places four to six companies a year, depending on how many it can fund with that year’s money based on rents, and there are six in the most recent cohort: Capital Talent Development Group, which focuses on working with underserved and underrepresented youth and adult talent in the workforce; Ernie’s Catering, barbecue specialist; Perfect Pour, a hamburger and bourbon restaurant; Street Craftery, which produces handcrafted household items and offers DIY workshops and classes; Sweet and Savvy Cake Shop, a specialty bakery; and Velvet Vintage, a curated boutique selling vintage clothing and furniture.
“Five of these businesses are owned by women and five by people of color,” said Kimberly Beckett, director of business relations and development for DAP, which runs the Start Downtown program.
It was the first time DAP was able to award all of its Start Downtown funding at once, Beckett said. She said the growing downtown residential population is helping to attract business owners.
“We had seen retail interest starting in 2021, which was quite surprising with some of the challenges we’ve had downtown with construction and COVID hitting quite hard,” Beckett said. “But with our increase in the residential population, things fell into place.”
Start Downtown seems to be popular with business owner tenants and downtown landlords.
Da’Shika A. Street, which is opening Street Craftery on Main Street this year, said she was counting on DAP and the program to help her find her location about half a block south of Canal Park.
“I had been looking for space for these efforts for some time. I always stayed in touch with DAP and stayed on their radar and kept asking who was moving,” Street said. “And Kimberly Beckett was amazing. … She ended up connecting me with the landlord of the building I’m in, and it was a smooth transition.”
DAP’s help, with rent and other aspects of his business, made the process much less stressful than it could have been, Street said.
“Going from a home-based business to a brick-and-mortar store, there can be a lot of anxiety,” she said. “(Start Downtown) makes a big difference and builds the confidence of the entrepreneur going into it. You feel like you have a foothold and people behind you.”
Street plans to open its store on July 1. Like many other companies in this year’s Start Downtown program, it is now busy preparing its space.
The same goes for Sweet and Savvy, a bakery moving into a new space on North High Street — conveniently, next door to Akron Coffee Roasters — that’s started by famed Akron baker Savannah Griggs.
Sweet and Savvy owner promoter Tony Troppe said he was unaware of the Start Downtown program until recently, but welcomes it as another way to help businesses relocate downtown.
“It looks like it gives them a head start with a few first operational dollars,” Troppe said. “Trying to open is a big challenge and these guys (DAP) are into it. They and the city are helping new businesses a lot.”
DAP is also trying to manage its businesses a bit, or at least place them where they will be successful and not directly compete with a similar retailer, Beckett and Graham said. Sweet and Savvy, for example, is not located near Sweet Mary’s Bakery on Mill Street – a former Start Downtown participant – but is next to the popular cafe.
Although Graham said not every business has to stay in business for years and years to be successful, some former participants of Start Downtown, formerly called the Pop-up Retail program, have.
Sapreea English, for example, owns Hair Geek, a salon of The Standard, which is being converted from student housing to traditional apartments by Alabama-based Capstone Real Estate. English said she had been there for five years and was on her second owner.
“It helped a lot,” English said of Start Downtown. “Because I was my only startup person in the beginning. … For my freshman year, it was just me here.”
His rent allowances have long since run out. Although she would have liked a little more help during the height of the COVID pandemic, Hair Geek can manage on her own without the grants today, English said.
Some businesses in this year’s Start Downtown cohort are already open, such as Perfect Pour. The restaurant is popular with downtown residents, as well as local healthcare workers, with people from both groups coming regularly for specialties such as fried green tomatoes, said Perfect Pour waitress Lila Rajkoummale.
The Morgan Foundation is pleased with the value for money it is getting from its program funding.
“A common barrier that new businesses face is access to affordable space,” Gina Dotson, the foundation’s grants and communications manager, said via email. “The Start Downtown grants are not a permanent aid, but are designed to help companies settle into spaces so that they can focus more intensely in the first months on growing a customer base. The close relationships of DAP with business owners and building owners gives them the unique ability to help businesses think carefully about the best spaces for their purposes.… The foundation is pleased to support a program that helps small business owners contribute to a strong downtown.
Graham and Beckett are eager to reopen the program next year — unless DAP secures more funding for the program by then, which Graham said she may pursue. The return on investment would justify expanding the program, she said.
“We’re talking about $20,000 to support four to six new businesses,” Graham said.
If DAP gets additional funding, Beckett said she’s confident she can deploy it to launch more businesses downtown.
“We continue to see interest,” Beckett said.