Best small town economic development idea I’ve seen in months, hands down.
My friend Deb Brown is the new director of the Webster City, Iowa, Chamber of Commerce. Deb looked at the empty store fronts downtown and other available buildings around town as opportunities. So she and her new team in Webster City decided to hold a Tour of Empty Buildings.
- She started by gathering intelligence on the open buildings from the county.
- From that she was able to contact building owners.
- She arranged to have a construction professional and the city manager walk through the buildings with her.
- She worked with local realtors to work with owners as point people on the tour, fielding questions about what businesses could be a good fit, square footage, cost, condition and so on.
- She asked her Chamber Champions (the chamber volunteers, mostly retired folks) to attend and share more community history and background about the buildings.
- She got two business teachers to share the tour in their classes.
- She got the city, county and chamber all on board.
She ended up with 11 locations on the tour that were for sale or for rent. All the locations are listed in Why Bring Attention to Empty Buildings?
Why tour empty buildings?
Because people are curious, Deb said. I can attest to this. I borrowed an empty building in Alva to do wine tastings during our big arts festival. I cannot tell you how many people walked into the wine tasting just to look around at the building. (It was the Hotel Bell, if you’re curious, too.)
“We’d like all the people that can come, to attend and see what spaces are available and then to go home and talk about it. Share what they saw with their friends, their church community, and their businesses.
“Because somewhere in this town and county is a person who is looking to locate in one of those buildings.
“Somewhere there is a kid just out of college who wants to move home and live and work here.
“Somewhere there is a person with a desire to be an entrepreneur.”
Results: Did it work?
1. All the participating buildings were cleaned up to be presented.
If you are from a small town, you know that this is a big deal.
2. People all over town and the surrounding area are talking about what could be possible.
That’s an important shift. Webster City has a population of about 8,000. It had been home to an Electrolux manufacturing plant employing 850 workers. In 2009 the city was notified it would be closed. In March 2011, it was closed for good. The loss of such a high percentage of jobs has been tough. But it was also more than two years ago. This tour represents a shift the town is making from “what used to be” thinking to “what could be” thinking.
3. Real estate transactions are now in progress.
At least one building is in the process of negotiations for a sale. Another buyer is seriously interested in other properties. One young attorney who lives in town, but works out of town is considering bringing her practice home.
4. By promoting the available buildings, Webster City is showing a welcome sign to entrepreneurs and businesses.
“There are several people in our community that are graduating from Iowa Central with entrepreneurial degrees,” Deb said. “They will want to stay at home and work in their home town. We’ve let them know that they have place here.”
You can read the full results, including names of those who helped make it possible, here: The Tour–Declared a Success.
Deb and I have put together a Toolkit to help you run your own Tour. You can get the details at the Tour of Empty Buildings Toolkit.
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Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband have a small cattle ranch and are lifelong entrepreneurs. Becky is an international speaker on small business and rural topics.