Some vacant store spaces are tough to fill, so the Downtown Bellingham Partnership is experimenting with an idea to fix that situation.
The agency is partnering with the City of Bellingham, Western Washington University students, and with businesses to launch Hatch, a business incubator that fills empty spaces in the downtown area. The plan is to use the space at 1302 Commercial St. to showcase the products of several entrepreneurs, with a grand opening launch on Friday, Sept. 4. With the help of the students, the goal is to have one of the entrepreneurs sign a lease and operate a business out of that space, said Dylan Green, a Western student and the communications coordinator for Hatch.
Students have spent weeks revamping the storefront, which was last home to the Stamp & Coin Place. The company moved out of the 1,700-square-foot space more than four years ago. The remodeling including new flooring and painting, with materials donated by local businesses. As potential businesses are selected for the site, students will help them connect with a variety of resources, including financial, marketing and business advice.
The perception of many is that 1302 Commercial St. is a tough space to keep filled because it is right next to the ramp going into the Parkade, leaving no place for street parking to load and unload products.
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“I think it’s a perceived problem,” said Nick Hartrich, executive director of Downtown Bellingham Partnership, noting that plenty of parking is nearby in the Parkade.
More likely, the space has fallen into the broken-window theory, in which a space that’s empty for a long time is harder to fill because of a perceived danger in the area, Green said.
“If you fill the spaces, the danger is flipped around,” Green said, explaining that a block that is filled with open businesses provides a greater sense of safety in an area for residents, leading to more people walking around and checking out the businesses, leading to stronger sales for everyone.
Downtown Bellingham has actually been filling up many vacant spaces in recent years, creating a more vibrant downtown, according to Hartrich. He estimates there are 35 to 40 vacancies in the district, which would be a vacancy rate of less than 5 percent. In the spring of 2014, the vacancy rate for commercial space on a square-footage basis was 8.4 percent, according to the Whatcom County Real Estate Research Report.
The Commercial Street space is owned by the city, which strongly supports the project, Hartrich said.
The Sept. 4 grand opening is not a random date; it’s also the same day as the launch of the Commercial St. Night Market, which is nearby and should create some foot traffic in the area. Along with vendors, live music will be playing in the area from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday nights through Oct. 2. Details about the market can be found at commercialstreetnightmarket.com.
For more information about Hatch, visit its Facebook page.