Oh! That’s Interesting!! RCBJ Ponders On A Trend Boosting Main Streets

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Landlords Offering Free Rent As Catalyst To Jumpstart Ailing Main Streets

By Tina Traster

In an English seaside town, landowners devised a scheme to breathe new life into a faltering downtown district filled with empty storefronts: they offered 10 local businesses free rent for two years.

The rent-free period along Kingland Crescent in Poole, which wrapped up in the spring, not only revived the devasted downtown located next to a mall, it opened a door to the kind of small business owners who needed a leg up to jumpstart their enterprises.

A report in The New York Times said half of the businesses that participated in the program remain on the street and the nearby shopping mall has bumped up its visitors, which runs counter to the trend at many large malls.

Miles across the big pond, a similar experiment is playing out in Hackensack, New Jersey. To attract business startups to downtown – and to fill languishing empty commercial spaces – the Main Street Business Alliance is offering free rent for a few months in some retail spaces within the Special Improvement District. Landlords teaming up with Main Street Business Alliance have termed the program “Pop-Up on Main”, which is looking to lure startup and established entities to the main hub.

Think of these efforts as more breeds more. If a business is prospecting for a space in a downtown or commercial district and finds a street lined with empty spaces, it’s generally off-putting — and often a disadvantage to landlords who want to ink the best deals. The gut response is “this street doesn’t have the foot traffic, it’s dead.” Empty spaces leave an impression of an ailing downtown. In contrast, a buzz along the street, the sense that something interesting and transformative is happening in a place, is like a giant magnet that attracts a fertile crop of businesses.

Sometimes this happens organically – but rarely. In cities like Beacon and Hudson, for example, extraordinary revivals along main streets began with urban pioneers who found diamonds-in-the-rough – good bones, beautiful architecture, proximity to the Hudson River – but also blight and disrepair. Their efforts were built upon with private-public partnerships and interest from the development community, which brought boutique hotels and new residences. Prosperity begets prosperity.

Main Street is often the catalyst for revival that radiates into the larger community and boosts real estate prices.

The deterioration of Kingland Crescent in Poole started during Britain’s pandemic lockdowns, though underlying stresses have threatened Main Streets (or High Streets, as the Brits call them) long before the modern plague. Like here, e-commerce and the saturation of chains have drained the allure of bricks-and-mortar shopping. Unsurprisingly, main streets fill up with restaurants and bars and other food experiences that are not possible online. A thriving foodie scene is often a boon to Main Street – RCBJ recently reported on the exploding food and beverage scene in Sparkill. But downtowns need diversification to thrive.

The Poole experiment attracted a constellation of interesting retailers: Restored Retro, a furniture restorer, a coffee shop with a roastery and a gin bar, a plant store.

The Poole landlord, Legal & General Investment Management, Britain’s largest asset manager, rolled the dice by providing free rent to entrepreneurs, even those with no business experience. It’s not entirely unusual for landlords to be flexible with rent or perks when stores or shopping strips remain empty – but how they go about reinventing the larger ecosystem can greatly impact the evolution of a shopping district or center.

In a May 15 press release announcing the Hackensack initiative, MSBA Executive Director John Peters described it as “a perfect example of what can happen when you bring the business community and property owners together to think outside the box to address some vacancies.”

Peters said there are already two participating property owners with five potential spaces for the program, according to NJBiz. For now, the program is open-ended and the rent-free offer will be determined by the needs of the retailer and space. Along with assistance from the Alliance in navigating the city’s zoning process, pop-up shop owners will receive “free rent for a few months,” the release said.

Downtowns, strip centers and malls never stay fixed in time. These nexuses are a reflection of a community’s health, individuality, character, even its reputation. Communities use Main Street to define and redefine themselves – take Main Street in Great Barrington, MA, which has become a magnet for legalized retail cannabis dispensaries. Recently, RCBJ reported on the anticipated opening of the Borscht Belt Museum on Canal Street in downtown Ellenville – a Village that is trying hard to pull up its bootstraps.

Main Street is like a stage. It’s where a town or village puts on its best act. It’s what draws the crowd – and if it’s appealing – they come back for more.