Finding Room For Flexible Retail

Urban marketplaces are as old as cities themselves. From the spice bazaars of ancient Jericho to a modern farmers market offering seven varieties of hybridized kumquat, these hubs have thrived for thousands of years by efficiently connecting crowds of buyers with clusters of merchants.

One of the key qualities of marketplaces, and a reason for the longevity of the marketplace model, is flexibility. By giving businesses temporary access to inexpensive space with low overhead costs, they provide a low-risk opportunity to test demand for a product or service, reach new customers, and hone entrepreneurial skills.

The late 20th century, however, witnessed the decline of this model in the United States. Supermarkets and discount department stores, all with considerable buying power and wider selections, were able to out-compete the small enterprises that filled public markets. At the same time, shopping malls found success in mimicking features of public marketplaces, but in tightly controlled and capital-intensive environments that were only accessible to larger businesses and chains.

Space for temporary and nimble forms of retail gradually dried up or became relegated to parts of cities that were dilapidated and uninviting. Jamestown’s Public Market, located in Brooklyn Square, closed in 1965, while many other cities saw once-thriving networks of public markets reduced to just one or two.

But flexible forms of retail are making a comeback, and many cities are actively promoting them as ways to bring new life to underutilized spaces and to cultivate new economic activity.

Right here, the JRC’s Downtown Jamestown Farmers Market witnessed a wider range of vendors this year taking advantage of low fees and access to a growing downtown customer base. That’s continuing with the indoor Winter Market at the Renaissance Center – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays from November through February – and with plans to expand the Farmers Market next summer.

Elsewhere, Pop Up! Pittsburgh and Renew Newcastle, in Australia, are two good examples of efforts in formerly industrial cities to use temporary forms of retail activity, the arts, and special events to reutilize empty buildings, change perceptions of distressed districts, and inspire new entrepreneurial ventures.

Carving vacant buildings into inexpensive rental spaces for small retailers, offices, and artists, and offering simple short-term leases, is another tactic gaining traction. In Buffalo, the Main Washington Exchange at 523 Main St. has turned a long, narrow downtown building into common space for small start-up businesses. Outside the exchange and throughout downtown Buffalo, food trucks have also emerged as a flexible way for businesses to access customers while providing an amenity that strengthens downtown as a workplace and as a food destination.

It may seem odd to focus on cultivating small-scale local retail activity at a time when online retail is growing by leaps and bounds. But innovators at IBM recently released a prediction that local retail will thrive in coming years by combining technology and proximity to customers in ways that provide an experience and levels of service that far surpass online-only forms of retail. For local entrepreneurs who can combine a strong online presence with an appealing and adaptable physical presence, the future looks bright.

What types of retail innovations do you see in store for downtown Jamestown or other parts of the city? Is there a building or public space that would be great for an experiment in temporary, or “pop-up,” retail? Feel free to contact the JRC through our website, jamestownrenaissance.org, our Facebook page, or by calling 664-2477, to share your ideas.

PARADE NOTES

Congratulations to everyone who contributed to the success of the JRC’s Christmas Parade and Holiday Celebration on Dec. 6. Special thanks go to the members of the parade’s planning committee, the many generous volunteers who made the event run smoothl and to the parade’s lead sponsors: The Resource Center and Lutheran Jamestown.

Based on feedback from past parades, an effort was made to shorten the duration of this year’s event while improving its quality. Because of the enthusiasm and hard work of the parade’s participants, and the coordinating magic of Tiffani Conti, both goals were achieved.

Renaissance Reflections is a biweekly feature with news from the front lines of Jamestown’s revitalization.