What do you do when you have businesses wanting to come to downtown Charlotte and set up shop–but no place to put them? This challenge is exactly the situation that downtown Charlotte is facing this spring. There are no available storefronts, which seems like a good thing, but it also somewhat limits the growth of downtown Charlotte.
Charlotte Rising Executive Director Lisa Barna has accumulated a growing list of entrepreneurs that would like to open a business in the downtown business district, she said. Five years ago, when Charlotte Rising started as part of the Michigan Main Street program, this was not the case. There were 14 vacant buildings downtown. It was a fight to get people to come into town, said Barna.
But that’s changed. The storefronts are full.
“There are certainly buildings and spaces downtown that are not currently occupied by an open business, but in most of those cases it’s because they are under renovation and there are plans for their future use. I wouldn’t call that vacant, or occupied, frankly, more of a transitional state,” said Bryan Myrkle, Community Development Director for the City of Charlotte.
“There is, of course, a ton of vacant space on the upper floors of many buildings downtown. We have worked over the years to find uses for those second and third floors, usually as residential rental units; but there may be certain first-floor office uses that could reasonably move upstairs and create space for more retail downtown,” added Myrkle.
“What I can say with certainty is that it is very difficult right now to find space available for retail business in downtown Charlotte, and while that can be a problem, it is a problem most communities would like to have.”
Downtown Charlotte was probably at its lowest point in about 2014. There was a high vacancy rate and a lot of concern amongst the business community. There was a local ‘economic summit’ convened that summer to address the situation and that brought a renewed community focus to downtown. Then in 2015 Charlotte was chosen as a Project Rising Tide community, which led directly to the creation of CharlotteRising, which has spurred new activity, new events, and new investments. Project Rising Tide also made it possible to secure additional funding for the Beach Market redevelopment, and paid for the extensive research and documentation necessary to get Downtown Charlotte listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There was also the effort by local businesses and other private donors to buy the old Carriage Cleaners site and donate it to the city for the creation of Timepiece Park. “Approximately half the expense of developing the pocket park was paid by grants and donations, which is unique among all the projects I have ever worked on. The pandemic notwithstanding, this has been an incredible 5-year run for downtown Charlotte, and we hope this momentum will continue into the future.” Myrkle added.
“It’s taken five years to get to this point,” Barna said. “And we want to give Charlotte entrepreneurs the best chance to succeed.”
The goal of Charlotte Rising is to cultivate a vibrant, enduring downtown Charlotte. The community-driven organization is locally funded; their annual $200,000 budget is covered by private donors who want to see Charlotte prosper and grow; 89% of their annual budget comes from private donations. There are no membership or dues to pay but your business must be within the ten square blocks that Charlotte Rising serves. Charlotte Rising is geared towards the economic development of the city and can fund infrastructure, art projects, and grants.
One method that will be instituted to try to create new space downtown are occupancy grants offered by Charlotte Rising to those willing to subdivide their storefront space in half, move to the front to the back of the store, or to alter their upstairs space to allow another business to move into the building. These grants are for $5,000 and applications will be available starting July 1, 2021, to building owners.
“I hope we see people moving and shifting,” Barna said.
It’s not as simple as just asking a service-type business to just move upstairs and let the retail stores be downstairs for the convenience of walk-in customers, Barna explained. Most of the downtown buildings with second and third floors have not developed them. Many are lacking electricity, heat, adequate flooring, and more. These are expensive fixes and may need $100,000 or more to make the space usable. There used to be available from the State of Michigan for improvements like this, she explained, but right now those funds are being used for COVID relief.
Barna, as executive director of Charlotte Rising, refuses to take credit for the success of the downtown business area. The ideas for the revitalization of the downtown come from volunteers, she said. The Economic Vitality team came up with the plan for the $5000 grants, she said. She is the one who makes sure things get done and is charged with reporting their progress to the State. “We are the conduit for change,” she explained.
“If we invest locally, we will see changes,” Barna said, commenting on the $200,000 invested annually into the business district in the last five years which has resulted in this growth and development. For more information about the grants or about Charlotte Rising, call 989-217-1950 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit their website at charlotterising.com.