Sparta eyes small business incubator


DDA officials are considering the use of former shipping containers to house startups in downtown Sparta. Rendering courtesy Blox

A new small business incubator may be coming to downtown Sparta.

The Sparta Downtown Development Authority is in early planning and fundraising stages to create small shops that would temporarily house and incubate new small retail businesses.

The conceptual plan, called “The Orchard” for now, would better underutilize a 200-space parking lot along Nash Creek on E. Division Street, in between Washington and Maple streets, according to Elizabeth Morse, Sparta DDA director.

The project would improve landscaping around the lot and create a type of town square containing the small stores, similar to the small pop-up shops inside small chalets in downtown Muskegon.

Grand Rapids-based Blox, owned by Grand Rapids-based NewCo, has provided initial designs that propose creating the shops out of cargo shipment containers.

Working with local apple farmers, the design also includes a large apple dispenser reminiscent of a quarter-operated gumball machine. “So, you put the coin in and out comes the apple,” Morse said.

Morse said Sparta community leaders understand that downtowns need to be progressive in order to survive. For Sparta, that means leveraging the potential business of the many visitors to create a tourist-friendly downtown.

Sparta has many events and festivals throughout the warmer months that attract many of the same vendors who set up shop under tents, Morse said.

She said 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.

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.

“They're not great for a downtown that needs those neighboring businesses to create foot traffic and create some of that synergy, that walkability,” Morse said.

“There is very little actual vacancy downtown, but the demand hasn't been there to change over some of those uses.”

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 been researching and engaging supporters for about two years with a more aggressive push in the past five months, Morse said.

The project recently went from concept to planning when 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.

“Because of winning the pitch, the momentum in our community to band together, from the individual investment stakeholder's standpoint, is just starting to snowball,” Morse said.

She estimated it will take $50,000 to start the space. The DDA has committed $5,000 this year for landscaping, which Morse said will happen regardless. The rest likely will be raised privately, she said. So far, there has been verbal interest from private donors that puts the total raised to around $20,000.

Conservatively, the goal is to complete the project by spring 2020.

Morse said she plans to run the first season as a trial. The initial number of spaces will depend on the amount of private support, though support and operations could grow over time.

A new private owner recently bought the office building adjacent to the parking lot, at 201 E. Division St., and plans to revamp the building to create retail space that pairs well with the nearby DDA activities, Morse said.

She said the owner is not ready to discuss details but has expressed interest in working with retailers who lease space in the building to help them survive through early stages.

“What's also very cool is just because of this pitch discussion, we're seeing private property also evaluating what they can do to help synergize with what we're talking about. It’s really taking our community forward,” Morse said.

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