Volunteer effort filling downtown retail space

Volunteers, city officials and landlords involved hope the pop-up shops — niche retailers who take over a vacant street-level space for 3 to 6 months — may some day become permanent part of a growing downtown retail hub.

“It started with the question, ‘What can we do to solve the street-level vacancies’,” said Julie Sullivan of the Downtown Dayton Partnership. “It was having a tremendous impact on downtown.”

Two groups of young professionals — Generation Dayton and updayton — were approached for their input. Members formed the volunteer Activated Spaces to find solutions. From that came a short-term solution: giving over the window space to local artists to display their works during Urban Nights last year.

A medium- to long-term solution was launched last November: open the spaces to small retailers at a reduced cost for a 1-, 3-, or 6-month period.

Over the past 11 months, Activated Spaces — under the umbrella of the downtown partnership — helped launch seven pop-up shops. Five of the seven remain in business; one’s business plan was for the holidays only and closed after Christmas; and the seventh found it worked better in a studio space rather than a retail environment.

“Downtown Dayton came to us with the idea to launch a project to bring some more vibrancy to downtown,” said Scott Murphy, former chair of updayton and Activated Space volunteer.

“The idea is to get retailers back to downtown,” Sullivan said. “We would like to bolster the area as a retail hub.”

Two of the pop-ups — Beaute Box, 116 W. Fifth St., and Peace on Fifth, 519 E. Fifth St. — are approaching their first anniversary.

Prospective retailers submit a business plan to Activated Spaces, which reviews the plan, judges its viability and looks at what experience the owner might have. The group then approaches a landlord to see if the building owner would be interested in a short-term lease at a discounted rate. The group negotiates the lease between the landlord and the prospective retailer with the understanding that after three or six months, the lease can be renegotiated to increase the cost of the lease.

Activated Spaces now provides a $250 a month lease stipend for the first three months of the lease to help the retailer through the start up. Money for the stipends comes from donations and grants to Activated Spaces.

“I liked the idea, and I need people in that space,” said Tom Razauskas, owner of the building that now houses pop-ups Beaute Box and Vintage Barbershop on its first floor. The second floor also has two leased loft apartments.

Razauskas, who has owned the building for 15 years and grew up downtown, remembers when the entire neighborhood was hopping. “I’ve seen a lot of changes. But now, I think, downtown is on the move forward.”

“They seem to want to stay,” he said of his retail tenants. “Both wanted to renew.”

For Tracy McElfresh and Jesy Anderson, their pop-up store, Sew Dayton, 16 Brown St., allows them to merge their home-based businesses — a custom dress business and a design firm, respectively — into a brick and mortar outlet.

“Activated Spaces helped us to our goal. It would have taken a lot longer otherwise,” Anderson said inside their sewing, fabric, alteration and custom dress shop.

“Plus, we don’t have people coming to our houses,” McElfresh said.

Anderson brings a corporate background to the business, while McElfresh is a third-generation seamstress.

Anderson and McElfresh met on Facebook three days after Anderson was downsized out of her job in accounts receivable and a business plan was refined over several months. Both had retail experience. They even used a social media site to raise $6,000 in capital.

Opened for two weeks, the women are ramping up their offerings to include sewing classes.

For London Coe of Peace on Fifth, her pop-up is a commitment to a cause. Her shop handles only “slave-free” and local products for the home. Though Coe is passionate about ending human trafficking throughout the world, her shop is apolitical. One has to read the product labels carefully to find the reason it is on her shelves.

“The (building owners) have been flexible,” she said of the experience. “The goal has been to support growing businesses.”

At American Pi in the first floor of the St. Clair Lofts, December Brewster displays American-made decorative items for the home. Her family is the longtime owners of a jewelry and coin shop in Centerville.

“We’re getting our feet wet here in downtown,” she said. “We’re testing the waters before sinking a ton of money. We never thought of downtown before this opportunity.”

American Pi has signed a 1-year lease for the space with the loft owners.

“It is an opportunity for people to start something with minimal risk,” Activated Space’s Murphy said.

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