Columbiana eyes an innovative way to fill vacant storefronts: shark tank

COLUMBIANA –City and community leaders want to take a “Shark Tank” approach in trying to fill vacant storefronts.

City Manager Lance Willard reported at this week’s city council meeting the local progress committee wants to create a panel similar to the popular ABC television program to vet applicants, with the selected startup business receiving free rent for a year.

The panel of “sharks” — consisting of yet-to-be named community leaders and local entrepreneurs — would interview applicants during an open event held somewhere in town, such as the Main Street Theater.

“We’re going to have a call for concepts … where we’ll take up to 40 applications for a new business idea they want to put in our downtown. We will pick one we think is the best one, and the prize will be free rent,” Willard said.

He envisions that the list of applicants would be narrowed to 10. “They will come in and come across the stage and make a pitch” just like on “Shark Tank,” Willard said. “What won’t happen is the panelists will not be the investors. The panel will just pick the best idea and they will go in with their own capital.”

Willard said realtor Rollin Gosney, who owns several vacant storefronts, has agreed to participate in the program by making one of his storefronts available. While the rent would be free for the business startup, Gosney would still get paid. Rent is $1,000 a month for one year, and Willard said they are looking for 12 sponsors to donate $1,000 each to cover the cost. The Community Foundation and Restoration and Beautification Committee of Columbiana have expressed interest in making donations.

The idea is still in the early planning stages, and the progress committee is scheduled to meet on Sept. 11 to begin working out the details. Officials from the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI) are expected to be involved at some point to assist the committee. Willard said they got the Shark Tank idea from YBI, which hosted its own Shark Tank event in May.

Willard said the Shark Tank idea came up during a recent meeting of the progress committee, created as a result of the city’s involvement with the Ohio Rural Community Assistance Program. “We meet every month and we do things, and we’re always looking at new things trying to help the downtown …. and one of the ideas is to have some influence on the empty storefronts,” he said.

The Shark Tank idea also builds on the pop-up business concept also embraced by the progress committee. The idea behind the pop-up concept is for participating landlords to give one month free rent and utilities to a new business, which would determine after 30 days if it wants to enter into a long-term lease.

Last month, an antique store went into the building owned by Gosney at the corner of West Friend and South Main streets as a pop-up business, and Willard said the owner has been overwhelmed by the foot traffic and interest. “The idea is just to get them in to test it out … All of a sudden people started lining up, looking in the windows and taking pictures,” he said.

The business owner has asked the landlord for a longer lease, and because of the interest in the antique shop other businesses are planning to rent out the upper floors of the building.

Willard continues to work with Town Center Associates, the consulting firm that specializes in revitalizing small town central business districts. Council hired TCA earlier in the year, and TCA is also being used by Lisbon and Salem to help them.

TCA is currently working with the city and owners of vacant storefronts to put signs in their windows stating whether they are for lease or sale, along with contact information. TCA will also create an online map of downtown businesses on its website that anyone access to determine if their are any vacancies and who to call.

“There are different ways to impact and fill empty storefronts,” Willard said.