US downtowns can learn from an English town that provided rent-free space to businesses.

US downtowns can learn from an English town that provided rent-free space to businesses.

Revitalizing Downtowns: The Power of Free Rent for Small Businesses

Downtown Revitalization

As many American downtowns struggle to come back to life in a remote-work world, they might want to look across the pond for inspiration. Several small towns in the UK have experimented with giving small businesses rent-free shop space over the last few years. Many of those businesses are now thriving and have helped attract visitors and shoppers back into relatively empty downtowns.

In the English seaside town of Poole, a major asset management company, Legal & General Investment Management (LGIM), rented 10 storefront spaces at no cost for two years to a diverse set of small businesses on a depressed shopping street in the city center. The commercial street, called Kingland Crescent, has since made a remarkable turnaround and is attracting significantly more foot traffic and patrons. Foot traffic is up 16% over pre-pandemic levels. And the small business owners — five of which are now paying to rent their spaces — were given an opportunity to grow that they might not otherwise have had. The shopping street now features a gin bar, a plant store, a restored furniture shop, and a coffee shop.

“It was a dirty, funny walkway with boarded-up shops. Now it’s vibrant, upbeat, colourful,” Hope Dean, the owner of a plant shop that was one of the 10 businesses given free rent, told The Guardian.

The success of initiatives like the one in Poole is not just a result of charity. According to Matt Soffair, a retail researcher at LGIM, the long-term goal is to create cash flow. “We’re not just doing this to do a nice thing for the people of Poole,” he said. Other UK downtowns are adopting a similar model. The Westminster City Council is starting a £10 million program to give small businesses rent-free space, as well as marketing and store-design help, on Oxford Street — a busy downtown shopping avenue in the West End of London. The initiative aims to replace “low quality” existing shops, including American candy stores, with “innovative local businesses.”

The success stories from the UK have also inspired some US cities to pursue similar downtown revitalization initiatives. Denver offered free rent and services valued at $20,000 to businesses willing to use empty space in the city’s downtown. San Francisco, too, has offered free rent and grant money to pop-up businesses in its downtown.

These initiatives not only provide a lifeline to struggling small businesses but also inject much-needed energy into otherwise desolate downtown areas. By attracting a diverse range of businesses, the streets are transformed into vibrant hubs of activity, drawing both locals and tourists alike.

The benefits go beyond just the small businesses. Revitalized downtowns create a positive ripple effect on the local economy, generating employment opportunities and driving additional revenue streams. The increased foot traffic not only benefits the shops themselves but also boosts nearby businesses, such as restaurants, cafes, and entertainment venues.

In addition to offering rent-free spaces, some initiatives also provide support in the form of marketing assistance, store-design help, and grants. These comprehensive programs empower small businesses to flourish and cater to the changing needs and preferences of modern consumers.

While the world continues to grapple with the challenges posed by remote work and shifting consumer behavior, the success of these downtown revitalization initiatives is a ray of hope. By embracing creativity, collaboration, and a willingness to try something new, communities can breathe life back into their downtowns and create vibrant spaces for both commerce and community.

So, let us take inspiration from across the pond and explore ways to bring back the beating heart of our downtowns. The recipe for success might just be providing a helping hand and a rent-free space to the dreamers and doers who can transform our desolate streets into thriving centers of commerce and culture.