Monday, February 22, 2010

Strategies to Engage Reluctant Business Owners in Commercial District Revitalization

By John Unger

John Ungar is Executive Director of the Mount Airy Revitalization Corporation. He has worked as a community development practitioner in Philadelphia for over 12 years.

As commercial district managers, we are justifiably proud when we complete major public improvements, such as landscaping, new lighting or decorative banners. While projects like those definitely attract attention to our business districts, we cannot achieve sustainable momentum unless the business owners themselves are invested in the business district.

Establish Trust

The key to encouraging such investment is to establish trust between the businesses and the commercial district management organization. Our role as managers is to communicate clearly that we have a common goal – increasing the business’ bottom line. When a new CDC, Main Street Program, Business Improvement District or other commercial district management organization begins, it is often something unfamiliar to many of the businesses. Initially, merchants may not view the organization’s goals as aligned with their own goals. They may not trust the district managers, or may consider us inexperienced regarding their business. Businesses may also feel that we are pushing for improvements so we can simply check it off as another of our accomplishments, divorced from any meaningful benefit to the business owner.

Personal Relationships are Key

It is essential to take the time to establish personal relationships with each of the business owners. Find out what motivates them. Provide assistance in small ways that don’t necessarily fit in with a larger program. It could be something small like suggesting the merchant carry some additional products, or helping them make better signs inside their store. These are all actions that directly benefit the merchants and demonstrate an understanding of their individual needs. Remember that every new business owner started with a dream and a passion for what they do. We can help businesses succeed if we can reignite that initial spark. This approach takes time, but in the end it is time well spent.

Patrice Edwards, the Commercial Corridor Manager for Wadsworth Avenue in Philadelphia, notes that “Gaining the trust of your merchants is essential to encouraging them to invest in self-improvement. I try to show consistency in providing the necessary assistance each individual business owner or manager needs, whether administrative or promotional, or just simple hand-holding during tough times. When you tell your people “I’ll check on that for you” or “I’ll be back tomorrow with more information”, they have to be able to count on it. When they’re happy – I’m happy, so for me, it’s a win-win situation.”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Existing Businesses Become Business Incubators for Local Entrepreneurs

When business is good, business owners are not particularly pressed to identify alternative sources of revenue. In difficult times, creative collaboration is not a luxury but a necessity. ["In Tough Times, Interesting Opportunities for Diners", NYTimes, 1/29/10]. The article mentions a few instances of sharing - a local deli becomes a hip once-a-month restaurant run by a budding entrepreneur, a baker lets a cookie maker rent and use his kitchen during slow hours. These are two ways that sharing space allows business owners to reduce costs.

Supporting new businesses is a priority for many of commercial districts. But in many instances, finding space within the commercial district for entreprenuers can be quite challenging. Rents may be too high for untested entreprenuers, or local landlords may only be unwilling to rent to anyone but a credit tenant. The great part about the collaborative approaches mentioned in the NY Times article is that it allows existing businesses to serve as small business incubators by give budding entrepreneurs low-cost ways to test concepts. For example, the once-a-month restaurant in a deli is run by an entrepreneur who also recieves guidance and support from the deli owner on purchasing and menu planning. In the other example, a local cookie maker is able to test her product in a rented kitchen without investing too much capital in the business.

If you have local business owners looking for extra revenue (and who isn't these days?), consider brokering relationships between your business owners and local entrepreneurs looking for space. Find entrepreneurs by reaching out to your local business center, local college or technical school. Educational programs - including culinary schools or business schools - are great places to find entreprenuers. Your efforts could be a win-win for both existing and new businesses.