Planners envision a downtown space that would have room for at least six incubator retail structures. Courtesy Sparta DDA
The Sparta Downtown Development Authority is taking the next steps toward establishing a retail incubator space.
The DDA is accepting bid proposals for construction on the newly formed Town Square in downtown Sparta.
The Town Square program includes construction and installation of six incubator retail structures in the core of downtown Sparta. The developer will own the buildings and lease them individually to tenants after the approval of each business by the DDA. A portion of the rent will be paid to the DDA for the leased properties.
As with many traditional downtowns with aging building infrastructure, the capital needed for a startup of a retailer to cover a lease, inventory, location improvements, IT, staffing and marketing, and other expenses makes it difficult for the average entrepreneur to launch a business, the DDA said.
The purpose of the program is to provide affordable space to launch retail businesses in downtown Sparta and to bridge the gap between capital-strapped startup retailers and empty storefronts.
The project will better utilize a 200-space parking lot downtown, along Nash Creek on E. Division Street, in between Washington and Maple streets.
Sparta has events and festivals throughout the warmer months that attract many of the same vendors who set up shop under tents. There has been strong interest from several of these vendors to set up space in these low-risk incubator stores, which would allow for more consistent hours and potentially an increase in business, said Elizabeth Morse, Sparta DDA director.
The idea is the influx of tourists during events would benefit the incubator businesses, eventually helping them move into their own brick-and-mortar locations.
Once businesses are ready to move into private locations downtown, however, there would be nowhere for them to go.
Many of the storefronts are occupied by nontourist-friendly companies, which moved when rent prices were low during the last economic downturn.
The hope is the incubator project would create more tourist demand that may lead to some of those commercial companies relocating to more appropriate areas, Morse said.
When roads are closed for Sparta’s festivals and events, it’s an inconvenience for many of those commercial companies downtown. Food and retail businesses thrive on such foot traffic, however.
The DDA has parameters around how the incubator development should look, but the partners will make final determinations together, Morse said. These incubator retail hubs will be varying sizes, around 10 feet by 20 feet.
As part of the response, the developer must include a detailed implementation plan for the entire project. It should include evaluation, design process, development and implementation, as well as a completion date and timeline.
Downtown Sparta — the city’s central business district — has a traditional historic footprint five blocks long, with M-82 running through the center of downtown directly in front of where the Town Square will be placed. About 10,000 cars pass through downtown Sparta each day, the DDA said.
All bid proposals must be received by 2 p.m. Jan. 7. Details are available at spartami.org/sparta-dda.php.
The Town Square retailers will surround a common pedestrian area with amenities such as seating, umbrellas, bistro lighting, flower gardens and improved landscaping. The DDA will fund and oversee the community areas of the project, Morse said.
In honor of the area’s apple industry, the DDA had an apple figure created, which was shown at Sparta’s apple festival this summer. It’ll come back out during the opening of the Town Square in the spring.
The DDA is working on a restroom agreement with a building owner adjacent to the space.
Sparta originally was planning to construct and own the buildings itself. Instead, the city is following the example of a similar project in Montague called the Artisan Market Village, Morse said. In this case, the city also partnered with a private developer.
This puts the risk on the developer, which also allows the company to move the buildings if the project doesn’t work out in the next couple of years, she said.
The DDA is continuing to raise funds from grants and private donors for the project. It has gotten several grants already, including $9,500 from the Sparta Community Foundation. Consumers Energy awarded the DDA $2,500 and named the project the third-place winner of its first Put Your Town on the Map competition, meant to energize residents and attract statewide attention.
Morse estimates it will take about $100,000 to start the space. The goal is to complete the project by May 2020.