GARDINER — A downtown revitalization program has an offer that will be tough to refuse for businesses looking to open a storefront in the historic downtown district: free rent during the holiday shopping season.
Gardiner Main Street is organizing Project Pop-Up in the hopes of filling vacant spaces during November and December and increasing foot traffic for all downtown businesses.
Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, said the ultimate goal is to attract long-term tenants for Gardiner’s vacant storefronts, but he also hopes the project will “add a sense of vibrancy and excitement for the downtown district.”
“It’s an experiment. It’s something we’re trying out to move the needle on some of these spaces and business development in Gardiner,” he said.
There are nine vacant, storefront spaces available for lease in downtown Gardiner, according to Wright.
Four landlords with six vacant units have agreed to lease their properties to tenants for only the cost of utilities for November and December.
The Gardiner City Council voted last month to waive any applicable fees for businesses accepted in the program through Jan. 1. Nate Rudy, director of economic and community development for the city of Gardiner, said lowering the barriers to entry is important to attract businesses and worth the investment.
“The revenue loss to the city is worth it to get people talking about Gardiner again,” he said.
Rudy said the project will give visitors during the holiday months a chance to see what Gardiner can look at its best.
“Having a cluster of shops to go to is more of a draw than just having a few places to go,” he said. “They can make out of it this way.”
Gardiner Main Street received one application from an art and craft store as of Friday, and Wright said he’s heard interest from a few other businesses.
Application from businesses are due by the end of the day next Monday, and tenants will be notified by Friday, Oct. 19. They’ll be able to open as early as Nov. 3 and as late as Nov. 23.
Pop-up stores aren’t a new idea. Seasonal retailers — like shops peddling ornaments and wreaths in December and Halloween-themed stores with costumed employees waving plastic signs at cars — have been taking advantage of holiday spending for decades.
These stores often tend toward the big box end of the retail spectrum or set up camp in the corners and kiosks of malls.
In large cities like New York City, stores will pop up for only a several days or weeks, often with products marketing heavily with their exclusivity. Other brands, like Procter & Gamble, have used them marketing, like when P&G opened a pop-up store in Manhattan in the fall of 2010 offering free products and free services like makeovers and hair washes.
Wright first heard about the pop-up store idea in April at this year’s National Main Street Conference in Baltimore. He said he was then reminded of the idea in early September when he saw Delaware was doing a Project Pop-Up of their own.
Main Street is a national program of more than 2,000 accredited communities that tries to revitalize older business districts in small cities and towns in the context of historic preservation. Gardiner is one of 10 Maine cities and towns that are accredited Main Street communities.
Wright called up Diane Laird, state coordinator of Downtown Delaware, and asked her if he was crazy to try to try to pull this off with such a short window, he said. She told him the aggressive time frame seemed feasible, Laird said.
On Sept. 11, the Gardiner Main Street board green-lighted the idea.
Delaware’s program includes four cities — Dover, Middleton, Milford and Wilmington — and is offering free rent for October through December.
Laird said the project’s primary goal is to fill the vacant storefronts for the holiday season. “If we can get a long term lease out of it, that’s icing on the cake,” she said.
Laird said the project has already created a lot of buzz and some unintended benefits. Some property owners have stepped forward saying they would be interested in participating next year, and she has been able to send applicants that weren’t a good fit this year to the towns and property owners, she said.
The selection committee choosing the businesses includes Wright, members from the city’s economic development department, a Gardiner Main Street board member, a consultant from the Maine Small Business Development Centers, the landlords and possibly others, according to project materials.
Wright said they’ll be looking for businesses that want to be in Gardiner for the long term. He said they won’t necessarily reject a tenant with a plan to only sell seasonal items, but “at its core, this is about lowering any barriers to trying and testing out this market.”
Another top criteria is the prior business success of applicants, he said. Wright said they won’t rule out a start-up, but he thinks it would be difficult to be ready in time unless the applicant already has a home-based or online business.
The selection committee will also examine how an applicant’s offerings will fit with the current businesses in downtown Gardiner. Wright said they wouldn’t want someone with the exact same product lines as another store, but complimenting offerings would be welcome.
Based on ideas from Gardiner Maine Street members and suggestions from their Facebook page fans, Wright has asked Bull Moose, Mexicali Blues, Morning Glory Natural Foods and Frosty’s Donuts if they want to apply.
Wright said Bull Moose Music, a popular record store chain with eight locations in Maine and two in New Hampshire, asked for an application. Mexicali Blues and Morning Glory Natural Foods declined the offer, and Frosty’s Donuts hasn’t responded yet, Wright said.
“It certainly sounds like both a creative and potentially a very effective way to promote a downtown,” said Mexicali Blues CEO Topher Mallory. “I think one thing that really sets Maine apart from other states is we have a lot of wonderful main streets.”
He said the company is already working on two large-scale projects, including building a new store for their Newcastle location, and the pop-up idea didn’t fit with their holiday season strategy. He said the project might have been a good fit for Mexicali Blues otherwise.
Gardiner’s rainy days
Gardiner has seen significant turnover in the last year. Six businesses have left Gardiner’s downtown since this time last year, and six others have moved in, according to Wright. Two businesses have also opened and closed within the year. Despite the handful of businesses that have moved in, downtown Gardiner still has nine vacant storefronts for lease.
Wright said that although the poor economic climate didn’t help, some of the reasons for the closings have been personal and were unrelated to business.
Marron, standing next to her desk last week and looking out at a mostly empty, rain-drenched street, said the empty spaces have hurt all the businesses downtown.
“We’re coming out of a recession, and small businesses get hit hard in a recession,” she said.
Marron’s large boxer, Bo, relaxed on his dog bed in front of her desk. She said Bo is usually more excited to greet people walking into the store.
“He doesn’t like rainy days,” Marron said, looking at Bo slumped on his brown bed.
Perhaps if Wright, Marron and the rest of Gardiner downtown get their wishes this holiday season, Bo might make even more new friends in the coming months — as long as the rainy days stay away.
Paul Koenig — 621-5663
2 Mechanic St. — 500 square feet on both first floor and second floor
289 Water St. — 800 square feet, brick walls, tin ceilings, counter
305 Water St. — 2,660 square feet, next to McKay Park
307 Water St. — 1,430 square feet, next to McKay Park
316 Water St. — 500 square feet, next to Post Office parking lot
318 Water St. — 500 square feet, next to Post Office parking lot
Those interested in Project Pop-Up can find more information and application materials at gardinermainstreet.org.