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Your Holiday Market? It’s an Opportunity to Revive Downtown.

Holiday markets, along with farmers’ markets, festivals and other pop-up retail events, are an underappreciated resource for identifying home-grown entrepreneurs who could fill vacant storefronts.

A holiday pop-up market in Cincinnati, Ohio.
(City Flea)
Holiday pop-up markets have become a welcome annual tradition, as they festively attract shoppers to America’s downtowns and main streets in search of one-of-a-kind gifts, handmade crafts and decorations, local food and other unique treats. Their return to our cities and towns this year is cause for special celebration as we work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic.

But these events have an even more important role to play and should be incorporated into communities’ economic development strategies. It’s especially important as America’s downtowns work hard to fill the many retail vacancies left in the wake of the pandemic.

Growing the resilient economies of downtowns and main streets increasingly depends not on recruiting chain stores but on creating distinctive storefront presences to define a community and attract not only residents but also visitors. That, in turn, depends on finding unique businesses that tell the story and heritage of the area.

How do you find the home-grown entrepreneurs who could transition into downtown storefronts? One place to look is holiday markets, along with farmers’ markets, festivals and other pop-up retail events. These events are not simply an appealing place to shop for high-quality locally produced items; they are a crucial stage on the journey from home-grown to storefront business.

Unique storefronts create distinctive destinations that are especially vibrant and resilient when they contain small-scale manufacturers that sell their products both in person and online. They are, therefore, not solely dependent on foot traffic for sales. These unique stores — found only in that community — make the place stand out. They can’t be replaced by the next mall down the road.

Every vendor at a holiday market or farmers’ market is demonstrating or testing the economic viability of a set of products under certain retail conditions. Those products often have year-round appeal and online sales potential. Examples include handmade jewelry, unique clothing, homemade jams or hot sauce, and individually printed notecards. Many are quite distinctively hand-crafted and reflect local culture and heritage. For instance, Sio Ceramics, a jewelry-maker in Washington, D.C., is a vendor at major festivals, sells out of its micro-retail storefront in D.C., and sells online direct to consumers and wholesale.

Holiday markets may seem simple in their structure — typically a booth, some display space and a chair or two. But they are in fact an incubator for business owners to test product-market fit, pricing and marketing outreach. Some of the businesses that thrive at these markets will be ready to scale to storefronts. By making the right-sized and -priced space available, the downtown can incubate that talent into unique storefronts that stand out in the region.

Yet in my experience working with dozens of smaller cities and counties across the nation, I have found that holiday markets and farmers’ markets are not typically part of the local economic development strategy. They are instead looked upon merely as fun occasions to brighten placemaking — one-off events not connected to local business development training, capital opportunities or retail space leasing. As a result, countless communities are overlooking a mechanism right in front of them — one that their own residents have created — for prospecting future downtown storefront businesses.

The vendors at holiday markets and other pop-up retail events will inevitably need assistance to transition to permanent space. They will likely need flexible or small retail space. They could need a shared retail or production facility. They could need specialized space, such as a shared kitchen or an area of micro-retail spaces. They may need a setting that allows a diversity of uses — retail with production in the same space, like Sio Ceramics, or with events and programming, or with food and beverage.

With so many vacant downtown storefronts due to the pandemic, and the closing of thousands of square feet of retail from consolidating chain stores, there has never been a better time for local officials to explore transitioning home-grown talent from temporary to permanent retail space. This holiday season we should see holiday pop-up markets for what they truly are: not only a fun occasion to bring the community together but a sophisticated entrepreneurship vehicle that can take America down the path to thriving, distinctive main streets and downtowns.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Ilana Preuss is the founder and CEO of Recast City.
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