How is the new Columbus program working to help fill downtown retail space?

Columbus officials launched a program Tuesday designed to help fill vacant downtown retail space with small businesses owned by women and minorities.

The program, called Ground Floor Growth, will provide money for rents and building renovations, along with other support, to bring life back to dormant inner-city space.

“It’s about getting people back downtown,” said Councilman Nick Bankston, who supported the program. “When the center is strong, Columbus is strong.”

Bankston and others unveiled the program at a press conference Tuesday morning in a vacant commercial space on East Broad Street, next to the former Tim Horton’s restaurant at Broad and High, which also sits empty.

Downtown has long struggled to retain and attract retail tenants, but COVID-19 has greatly increased those struggles, as it has in downtowns across the country. In 2020, 19 retailers (including restaurants) closed while eight opened, according to the State of the Center report prepared by Capital Crossroads & Discovery Special Improvement Districts.

Since then, more new retailers have opened (38) than closed (29), but the retail environment remains challenging, in large part because many former Downtown office workers continue to work from home. In addition to Tim Horton’s, other major retailers upping the stakes Downtown include CVS Pharmacy on South High Street and Mahone’s Pub on East Gay Street, which became Esco Restaurant & Tapas.

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About 126,000 square feet of retail space, or 12.6 percent of all inventory, remains vacant downtown, according to data from commercial real estate firm NAI Ohio Equities. That’s the most vacancy since 2014 and about three times the amount in 2018, 2019 and 2020, before COVID sent thousands of Downtown workers home.

“The biggest factor is that the daytime and nighttime population is not high enough,” said NAI managing director Matt Gregory, who noted that many high-rise owners already subsidize ground-floor tenants. “We need more daytime workers and more nighttime and weekend residents.”

In addition to the many retail spaces sitting empty downtown, several new buildings are opening with ground floor retail space that needs to be filled.

“We know Downtown is coming back, but it’s coming back in a different way,” said Amy Taylor, president of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., a partner in the program. “One area we need to develop is our ground floor experience.”

The Ground Floor Growth program will help small and women- and minority-owned businesses in three main ways:

  • Rental assistance: Up to 50% of the rent the first year, 30% the second and 10% the third. The city has earmarked $500,000 for assistance. The program will be managed by the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., which will hold the tenants’ leases and subleases.
  • Building Improvements: $20 to $40 per square foot to improve retail space. The city has budgeted $1 million for the improvements.
  • Business Advice: The city has awarded a $150,000 contract to the Columbus Empowerment Center to provide technical assistance to retail businesses.

The city hopes to help 10 businesses with the program, which will target a few blocks north of the Statehouse, bordered by Broad Street to the south, Long Street to the north, Front Street to the west and Fourth Street to the east.

The program is open to any existing business looking to expand or a business looking for its first physical space, but the city hopes “many minority-owned and women-owned businesses will take advantage of the program,” said Nia Hairston , Deputy Director of Communications of the Municipal Council. Applications for Ground Floor Growth opened on Tuesday and will remain open until November 15 at the city’s small business hub.

“It’s exciting,” said Matt Ungar, a former business owner who has lived downtown for 19 years. “Small businesses need all the help they can get.”

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