Thought Leadership

Session Recap: Vacant Spaces to Vibrant Places

We recently conducted a panel session, From Vacant Spaces to Vibrant Places: How to Backfill Vacancies in Your Downtown, as part of SEDC’s webinar series. For those who missed it, this article includes highlights and key takeaways from the event.

Joy Almond
Main Street Manager
Albermarle, North Carolina

Colby Kirk
President and CEO
One East Kentucky

Elliott Cook
Director of Real Estate
Retail Strategies

Vacant Space into Vibrant Space

Session Recap

Why is it important to focus on the livelihood and investment in downtown?

Joy Almond: I truly believe that downtown is the heart of a community so it’s important to keep that heart healthy and focus on making your downtown as strong as possible.

Colby Kirk: We’ve learned that downtown revitalization is an important part of economic development. A vibrant downtown is as important as a site-ready industrial site. We’re even starting to see RFI’s that inquire about downtowns.

For more rural markets, what are unique things going on in Eastern Kentucky?

CK: We’ve done a program on Entrepreneurial Fellowship that is sponsored by the city government and offers high school and college students a paid fellowship. The program was created to connect high school and college students with locally owned businesses and business owners. People want to invest in their town, and we want to teach the younger generation how to accomplish that in a partnership with the city.

lively downtown with a vacant space

How are you capitalizing on the growth from Charlotte, North Carolina in your downtown?

JA: There is a younger demographic that went away to college, moved to a city for their work, then start families but then decide they want to move to a slower pace of life but want those city amenities in their town. They’re bringing those ideas to cities like Albermarle.

To stimulate our downtown economy, we passed a bill to bring social districts downtown. We created an overlay for a social district in our downtown. People can walk around with alcohol and it has been a huge hit for our downtown.

What can public-private partnerships bring to downtowns?

CK: The economics of these downtown buildings don’t always make sense. Hazard Coffee Company is a great example of how a public-private partnership allowed them to open a coffee shop in a multi-floor building in downtown Hazard.

Driven by the city, they said “We want to invest in our downtown and encourage others to do that”.

The building had been vacant for a number of years, so the city acquired the property. The ground floor holds Hazard Coffee Company and a toy store, Ready, Set, Play, on the other side. The city is subsidizing the rent by occupying the upper floors with their Economic Development Hub offices.

JA: There was a former fire station behind City Hall that the city owned. It was in terrible shape and the city wanted to tear it down.

Investors that were new to the area were really champions of older spaces. They pitched their idea for a brewery to the city, asking for the building to be given to them in exchange for X number of jobs and X economic impact. Uwharrie Brewing opened in February 2023, occupying the 9,500 square foot former fire station and ended up bringing a lot vibrancy of our downtown.

lively downtown with a grand opening

It’s important to not only incentivize these large operations, it’s also important to incentive small businesses too.
Can you give examples of that?

JA: Our Historic Preservation Commission ensures we comply with guidelines for historic tax credits. We conducted a Historic Tax Credit Workshop and toured a converted hotel with a ground-floor restaurant, targeting property owners, potential downtown investors, and Albemarle stakeholders.

We also have the Downtown Catalyst Grant – created in 2022 – addressing the issue of downtown spaces being vacant but not move-in ready. Interested parties don’t have the capacity or ability to do the work. They want to move their stuff in and put a sign up – they don’t want to invest money in a space that they don’t own. In 2023, we granted $75,000 in catalyst projects.

We also have a rebate program, Albemarle Downtown Revitalization. If you make a significant investment to the point that your property taxes go up, it’s a 5-year rebate program that pays you back.

Our thinking is “Let’s fund these building improvements and put our money where our mouth is.”

EC: We encourage cities to create a Downtown Property Inventory Guide and take the time to catalog the buildings downtown. Getting smaller spaces filled can help bring vibrancy to downtown which can make a catalyst project or larger vacancy more economically feasible in the future.

Give people a one-pager – let them know what opportunities exist. Let them know the process on the front end.

Another challenge around vacant space we hear about is absentee property owners.
How do you combat that?

CK: In a previous role I held in Harlan County, Kentucky we conducted a Letter Writing Campaign. There were a number of vacancies downtown and absentee property owners. Myself and our Downtown Development Coordinator created a joint letterhead, writing a letter that explained our vision for downtown, and told the property owners that they held the keys to that vision. We sent 25 letters in first year and received 14 responses. Within 12 months we had 4 properties turn over. One of the owners gave his building away to a local entrepreneur and now it’s a café. In our second year we accomplished getting responses from 100% of the property owners.

The Downtown Strategies division of Retail Strategies works with communities to create and implement a five-year plan to bring life and vibrancy to downtown. Our team helps you focus on what you should do, not on everything you could do.

Interested in learning more about our asset-based approach to downtown redevelopment?

Reach out to Elliott Cook

elliott cook

Elliott Cook

What do you need?

Recent Posts

150 Retailers & Restaurants


Retailer earings predict your community’s sales tax benefit. Check out the list!