Montgomery’s Retail Incubator Program was developed in 2011-12 as a five-year program that was set up to provide below market rent in a “brick and mortar” space owned by the City. It was intended to help new, small retailers establish a presence in Montgomery’s Central Business District. The City also wanted to activate the corner of Commerce & Tallapoosa Streets in the heart of the City’s Downtown Entertainment District.
A primary goal of the Program was to prove that Montgomery was ready to bring retail back downtown as properties were being developed through new construction and property rehabilitation. The original application was intentionally simple. A secondary goal of the program was to provide entrepreneurs who might be running a home or online based business for locally made goods the opportunity to try and see if a permanent store front might be a logical next step in their business growth. Three tenants met these criteria – Ciao Bella Boutique, Foo-Makers Holiday Pop-Up Shop and Hannah Z. Two of these businesses have gone on to establish full-time stores.
In 2014, midway through the program, downtown redevelopment finally started to surge, creating larger spaces for retail and restaurants to open throughout downtown and lessening pressure on the scarcity of small retail spaces. The Department of Development decided to relook at the program as a whole, to not complete with private spaces but still to add new opportunities to keep the corner active. One major success was a partnership with Auburn University Montgomery to house their student art gallery – Gallery 213. This provided students with real-world experience in managing a gallery that included exhibits from locally and nationally known artists, as well as student works. The Incubator space also became home to EAT South, the city’s local urban farming non-profit.
The opportunity for EAT South to have a larger presence downtown afforded them the means to increase awareness for their programs and interact with the community closer to the downtown farm just blocks away on Molton Street.
The Incubator was home to nine different businesses. It was also home to the City’s first full-time food truck known as The Bullet, which itself served as an incubator space for two local eateries. One tenant, CC’s Daiquiris, who came to us through the Chamber of Commerce’s small business training work, was particularly successful. At the end of there lease in the Incubator, CiCi's opened a new (and much larger) permanent location on Commerce Street October 2017 and continues to be very successful and a vibrant part of downtown.
The Retail Incubator Program ended in the summer of 2017 as the last tenant moved out to permanent new space. Looking back, the effort successfully activated the corner of Commerce and Tallapoosa Streets, bring a small comfortable green space to the parking lot. The effort helped prove that retail concepts and food trucks could be successful downtown. Finally, the Program successfully housed one of the earliest launches of the “Pop-up Shop” in Montgomery, something that has continued now and grown in years since in multiple locations around the holiday season.
Other lessons learned from Montgomery’s first Retail Incubator Program concerned, for example, the basic difficulties of being a landlord. It was an advantage to the City to own the space and directly control the rents and the tenants, however, that came with the flip side of handling matters like intra-tenant communications, maintenance, and repairs, and lease payment collection. One idea for the future is to work not on public property, but instead with private landlords who have available vacant spaces in targeted areas that lack retail establishments. Another idea is to more closely coordinate the program with the Chamber of Commerce and other small business promotional efforts.
For additional information about this past Program, contact Melanie Golson or Lois Cortell.