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Getting Pop-Ups to Take Root

Programs aim to make temporary business turn permanent


The holiday gift season has in recent years become a time for innovative temporary stores that move in for a few weeks of unique and low-frill retailing to serve the gift-buying public. The great thing about pop-up stores is that they can quickly – and cheaply, for the business owner – set up shop, bringing new retail activity to what would have otherwise been an empty storefront. The problem, though, is inextricably linked to the benefit: what pops up eventually pops down.

While permanent retail may not be the goal for many of these business owners or even a real need in some of the places they’re popping up, there are a lot of jobless people and storeless cities around the U.S. that would be most happy to see some longer term economic activity.

In Baltimore, a new model is emerging that hopes to get pop-ups to settle down. Writing for Grist, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson profiles Operation:Storefront, a year-old grant program in the city that connects entrepreneurs and artists with low-rent storefront space in the city’s retail-drained downtown. The program is run by the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore under the guidance of Mackenzie Paull.

Twelve individuals and businesses -- ranging from artists and performance groups to a barbershop, a fashion designer, and a design center -- were awarded up to $10,000 to occupy a physical location downtown. Paull helped broker deals with landlords for street-level space varying in size from 600 to 8,000 square feet, and with leases ranging from two months to three years. The Downtown Partnership also gave grantees business advice on how to scale their ideas to a physical space. The program not only fills empty storefronts, enlivening the street, it also allows people to incubate an idea on a short-term basis with the goal of building a business long-term.

One of the businesses in the program is a furniture maker now operating out of a former bank. It’s been there for more than a year. The incubation is a boon for small businesses, but also for downtown Baltimore. Evitts Dickinson points to another project in New Haven that connects burgeoning businesses with landlords willing to provide a few months of free rent in their empty spaces.

These examples bring to mind another semi-similar project covered recently in the Huffington Post’s Detroit page. With a downtown area equally starved for ground-level retail, one local has taken old storefront windows and converted them into “virtual shopping malls.” Featuring images of products and QR codes that can be scanned by smart phones, the storefront windows are intended to encourage actual window shopping. Passersby can scan the code to see more information about the products on display, and potentially even buy them. The point of this project is to provide more of a reason for people to walk down a street, or at least to not actively avoid it. And that’s a good start. Baltimore’s Operation:Storefront seems to be a more effective way of regenerating a retail area, but even the Detroit approach has merit. Different cities have different needs, but for those cities struggling to revive their economies, more attention should be paid to efforts that encourage local businesses to not only develop but also to remain.

Photo credit: Brian Snyder / Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.