By Jim Lee, firstname.lastname@example.org
Small businesses will be highlighted at events across the state and nation this Saturday, but sustaining a vibrant downtown is a never-ending effort that requires a continued commitment.
“We do a lot of events on a monthly basis,” Nick Manerchia, executive director for Middletown Main Street Inc.
In January and February, the Main Street program offers the drop and shop service, where parents can drop off their kids and spend some time shopping. In the summer there are musical events, and they also have fall and spring fashion events.
“Things like that really get people coming down, and they stay around to shop and become more aware about what the town has,” he said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, businesses with 20 or fewer employees made up 89.6 percent of all businesses in 2012. In addition, the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy said, between 1993 and mid-2013, small businesses accounted for 14.3 million net new jobs, or 63 percent of net new jobs for that period.
That same office noted that, in Delaware, 74,913 small businesses employ 174,196 people, or 45.6 percent of the workforce.
One resource that has helped small businesses is the Delaware Economic Development Office’s Downtown Delaware program.
Diane Laird, state coordinator for Downtown Delaware, said the agency offers services such as the Rural Business Mentoring Program. The program connects business owners with mentors who can assist them with topics ranging from customer service and social media to cost saving measures and business plan strategies.
Downtown Delaware started out focused on Main Street towns. Since 1996, the seven Main Street towns in the program have seen a net gain of 362 business and 1,688 jobs. And from the success of the Main Street program, Downtown Delaware created a Commercial District Affiliate designation.
“We used to be focused on just designated towns,” Laird said. “We expanded to include affiliates, so there is really something for communities at all levels of the game.”
Steve Twilley, executive director for Downtown Milford Inc., said they created an entrepreneurs’ network and a merchants group which come together to talk about challenges and successes. As part of Downtown Delaware, they can network with other business communities and share ideas and successes, like Milford’s Third Thursday initiative begun earlier this year. That involves merchants staying open later the third Thursday of each month.
“Research shows the vast majority of retail purchases are made after 6 p.m.,” Twilley said.
Next year, plans are to establish a monthly theme for each Thursday.
“Downtown has to be a destination, it has to be something special,” he said. “There’s something for people to see and places for people to shop where they will find things they won’t find elsewhere.”
Project Pop Up
Smyrna and Middletown are among the towns that have benefited from Downtown Delaware’s Project Pop Up. The program pairs the owners of vacant properties with potential entrepreneurs. A fledgling business receives three months rent-free, but the ultimate objective is for its owner to sign a long-term lease.
Royal Treatments draperies and décor opened in downtown Smyrna because of Project Pop Up, according to co-owner Karen Gill. She had started the home business before she and her husband moved to Delaware.
“When I restarted my business here, we didn’t know anyone, and it was taking a little bit longer than expected to reach customers,” Gill said. “When I read in the paper that Project Pop Up was taking applications and what the program was all about, I thought, ‘Maybe this is really my opportunity,’ so I applied and was accepted.”
After finding the storefront space in Smyrna, Gill said she had 30 days to set up the entire business.
“It was quite an adventure but amazing. It was very well received right away. People came in to see what we offered, and my business has grown astronomically since then,” she said.
Along with the three free months of rent, Project Pop Up also offers mentoring, coaching and help with social media and marketing.
“Those kind of things are a huge benefit,” said Gill.
She specializes in custom draperies, but she filled her store with a variety of interior decorations, accent pieces and gifts. Sales of those items were going so well, she asked her husband, Woody, to help her with customers at the store so she could have more time to make the draperies.
Then, they had the idea if they could also sell cards and gift bags, they could offer one-stop shopping. Instead of adding those items at Royal Treatments, they opened Smyrna Cards & Gifts in the vacant store next door.
So the Project Pop Up program that started with Royal Treatments in 2013, led to a second store opening in downtown Smyrna a year later.
In Middletown, Manerchia said Amber Shader, owner of First & Little baby boutique, started her business because of Project Pop Up.
“Her store is thriving. She has brought such a cohesiveness to all the boutiques,” he said.
Along with Smyrna and Middletown, several other communities have participated in Project Pop Up, and Laird said 18 businesses in the program have signed long-term leases.
Gov. Jack Markell also praised the program.
“The success of this program underscores the fact that there are entrepreneurs who want a shot at starting and growing businesses, and downtown communities have a home for them,” he said.
Commercial District Affiliates
While Smyrna doesn’t have a Main Street Inc. program, it is a Commercial District Affiliate. Affiliates, according to Downtown Delaware’s website, are “communities that choose to implement downtown revitalization strategies similar to designated Main Street programs, but on a smaller scale. Some of these towns are ‘testing the waters’ as they consider future Main Street designation. DEDO works with these communities to build strategies that will encourage partnership-development, new funding opportunities, and increased opportunities for small businesses.”
Among the benefits, affiliates can participate in Downtown Delaware’s group training activities led by state and national downtown development experts. And they can tap into that statewide network where Main Street participants share information, learn about best practices in revitalization and trade best practices with peers from around the state.
How to get involved
The next opportunity for towns and communities to learn about Downtown Delaware will be the Delaware League of Local Governments talk on Dec. 1. Laird said staff members from cities and towns typically attend. Anyone interested in attending can email her at Diane.Laird@state.de.us or call Carl Luft at 668-0991.