Main Street Challenge: Spartanburg's Quest to Fill Downtown Storefronts

Revitalizing a downtown area is a challenge being faced by towns all over the country, and it's rarely, if ever, something that happens organically, without hard work, planning, and money.

In the case of Spartanburg, last year's Main Street Challenge was a calculated push towards bringing new businesses to the downtown area and filling some of the empty storefront spaces along Main Street. And the success of last year's challenge led the city to do it again this year.

Here is how the challenge works: Applicants submit their business ideas, describing not only the nature of the business, but also the resources available to them--money, know-how, personnel, inventory, and so on--to make the business successful. The selection committee chooses up to 12 business ideas as semi-finalists, and the next deadline is for those semi-finalists to submit a detailed business plan. In late May, the winners are announced, and the businesses must be up and running in time for the Christmas shopping season.

The three winning businesses receive $1000 a month for a year to go towards paying rent on one of several pre-selected locations--that's a total cash outlay from the city's economic development budget of $36,000. Additionally, the city has partnered with private businesses to provide roughly $8,000 worth of in-kind services, ranging from legal help and CPA services to printing and logo design.

In return, the winners must sign a 3-year lease, open by November 1, and be open during all customary business hours.

Last Year's Winners

Last year's winners were The Local Hiker, an outdoor equipment store whose business model includes in-store events and guided hikes to create a community experience rather than simply retail space; Haute Mama, an upscale maternity store that also offers classes and events for expecting and new mothers; and Motte & Sons Bootlegging Co., a new micro-distillery whose opening has been delayed by issues surrounding equipment delivery.

The the craft beer bar Growler Haus was really a fourth Main Street Challenge business, says Will Rothschild, Communications Manager for the City of Spartanburg. They had been one of the semi-finalists but pulled out of the contest because the location they really wanted (on North Church Street) wasn't among the predetermined Main Street locations, and they wanted to open on a different timetable. Ultimately, the Growler Haus launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds and awareness for their business.

Local Hiker owner Kathy Silverman says she and her husband Michael were already planning to open an outdoor equipment store, and when they heard about the contest, they jumped on it. "We were one of the applicants that already had a full business plan with five-year projections," she says, "but we took full advantage of all of the resources and in-kind services."

The Silvermans, who are first-time business owners, found the process of working with the city to open their business through the Main Street Challenge to be overwhelmingly positive. "The city learned a few things along the way, and we learned a few things along the way," she says. "I've had people come in who want to apply for the Main Street Challenge, and I encourage them to do it."

A Successful Challenge

Rothschild says what the city is looking for in a successful applicant is someone who is ready to go and has really thought through their business plan and has a sense of urgency about getting it going. "Making sure businesses open in time for the holidays will help us to ask more pointed questions of the applicants," he says. "Last year's challenge created a tremendous amount of momentum, and we don't want to lose that."

The challenge is about much more than just the three winners, according to Rothschild. The process itself garnered a lot of attention, and not just locally. The city is working with a couple of applicants from last year who didn't win, but are still looking to open a business downtown.

"We haven't committed to doing it beyond this year, but last year we went in not knowing how it would go," Rothschild says. "We got almost 60 applicants last year. Because it was so successful, we're on people's radars that we hadn't been on before--maybe franchises or second locations of businesses in Asheville or Greenville or Columbia."

Important Dates

Jan. 6: Application available online

Feb. 7: Deadline to submit application

April 18: Deadline for semifinalists to submit business plans

Late May (exact date TBA): The Main Event (public pitch event for finalists; winners announced)

Nov. 1: Deadline for winning businesses to open to public

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina.You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.