RI incubator opens for startup businesses

MAY 11, 2012 4:00 AM • JENNIFER DEWITT

A new Rock Island initiative hopes to nurture several startup businesses to maturity by offering a place for them to take root and grow in a newly renovated downtown storefront.

Renaissance Rock Island, in partnership with the city of Rock Island, will unveil a retail incubator during an open house today. Known as The Shoppes on 2nd, the project is breathing new life into a long-vacant building while increasing downtown’s retail offerings. “We want to encourage the next generation of legacy shop owners by giving them the opportunity to have a little help getting started,” said Catherine Rodgers-Ingles, the executive director of The District.

Located in heart of The District at 1700 2nd Ave., The Shoppes consist of six independent retail suites that will be rented to new startups and entrepreneurs with rental assistance for three years.

The former Martin Title building had sat vacant for nearly 10 years until Renaissance acquired it in August, said Beth Payne, Renaissance’s administration director. The structure originally was a multi-story office building until a fire knocked it down to a single story decades ago, she added.

“We used to call this the Flintstone building because of all the pebble and rocks on the outside,’’ she said. The dated façade has been replaced with picture windows that will give all the future tenants their own display windows. Inside, workers have maintained the original brick work, left duct work exposed and created walls using corrugated steel — for what Rodgers-Ingles called “a very urban look.”

According to Payne, the economic development organization originally had hoped to create a retail incubator in what is known as the Goldman Family Block, located west on 2nd Avenue. That property had been donated for redevelopment by the Goldman family of the former Hyman’s Furniture. But structural damage late last year formed Renaissance to demolish the former furniture store. Plans call for it to become a parking lot to serve the growing retail and nightlife along 2nd Avenue, including The Shoppes. Renaissance said a total of more than $380,000 was invested in The Shoppes through both public and private funding. The project involved Rock Island Economic Growth Corp as the non-profit community development. The development team included Bush Construction, general contractor; Gere-Dismer Architects; The District; and the Development Association of Rock Island, or DARI. Growth Corp., The District and DARI are all sister organizations under the Renaissance umbrella.

Prospective tenants must submit an application and a business plan to be considered for the new facility. A retail advisory board made up of representatives of the city, Renaissance and downtown merchants will chose the final tenants. As part of the incubator program, tenants will receive rental assistance for their first three years in the building and pay market rate in their fourth year.

“Our goal is that they will be successful enough that they outgrow the space and we can help them find other space in Rock Island or their own downtown storefront,” Payne added.

Rodgers-Ingles, who is in charge of marketing The Shoppes, said interest has been increasing. “This is perfect for someone who wants to open up a little shop,” she said, adding that they envision the first tenants to be startups, or home and online-based businesses that need a storefront. Of the six units, four are one-room units and the others have two rooms, which she said “could work if you had two business partners who make different products.” She expects tenants to move in as they are ready and not all at once. “I think we’re going to get filled up and have a good mix,” Rodgers-Ingles said, adding that the first round of applications now is open. “This might be the stepping stone that a first-time entrepreneur needs to make that leap.”

Payne said if The Shoppes are as successful as they hope, “we could need other retail incubators.”