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Pop Goes Covington: National Experts Offer City Advice on Luring Retail to Downtown

A shop popped up in the middle of Covington's Artisan Enterprise Center on Thursday afternoon.

And sold out of everything in minutes.

There was not a better example offered at the Small Talk, Big Ideas: Pop-Up Symposium in Downtown Covington then to prove right before the hundred attendees' eyes how pop-up shops can be fun and successful.

The "shop" was opened by Griffin VanMeter, a branding specialist best known for his organization Kentucky for Kentucky and its grassroots state slogan campaign, "Kentucky Kicks Ass". Van Meter is also a showman turned his excited audience into willing customers in a matter of minutes.

Kentucky Kicks Ass gear flew off the pop-up table with the assistance of VanMeter's volunteer employee whom he later learned was Covington Mayor Sherry Carran.

"I love Covington, it's awesome," VanMeter told the crowd. "That's the whole deal, right? Covington is awesome? I would also say it kicks ass!"

VanMeter was one of three keynote speakers during the symposium, organized by Renaissance Covington through a generous contribution from Haile/US Bank Foundation. Each speaker offered advice on how pop-up retail can trigger a more permanent commercial presence in a troubled urban center.

"The key with pop-up shops is that it's so interesting because what they do is they help you activate spaces that are otherwise underutilized," VanMeter said. "But it's not just retail and economic development. What it's really about is people and getting people to interact."

While VanMeter came to the conference from Lexington, Lisa Frish came from much farther. She is with the Porland Business Alliance in Oregon which spearheaded a pop-up effort there that has been credited with re-energizing its Downtown retail scene.

"We were struggling, we were stale," Frish said. "We were hearing from retailers that they didn't want to be Downtown, the customers weren't there for them. They wanted to be in the neighborhoods so we had a big challenge on our hands."

Frish and her team gathered a group of Downtown stakeholders to decide what to do to shore up the retail scene and to make Downtown a new destination where regional shoppers wanted to come and a place where aspiring entrepreneurs could build a strong business.

They arrived at a 14-point plan, one point of which was to activate vacant storefronts.

Some corners offered to cover the storefronts with art, scrims, peel-off stickers, or maybe have local students design something.

"And all of us were thinking of how boring that was," Frish said. "I could fill vacant storefronts with art all day long but we don't want to do that."

Then requests started to come in from local designers who wanted to put on fashion shows in the space (the fact that Portland is home to three winners of TV's Project Runway is a point Frish made known).

"No one is going to buy anything at a fashion show. It's not economic development," she said. "So, we thought, what if we gave (them) a store and (they) could sell to customers during the holidays."
 
"And they were game."
 
Suddenly the swath of vacant retail space in the large urban center was a blank canvas for new, temporary commerce. A former Banana Republic was dusted off, long vacant storefronts housed trial businesses, and suddenly the people were back in Downtown Portland.
 
That was five years ago and now Frish doesn't know how she will accomodate this year's pop-up shops because the program was so successful and led to so many new businesses that vacant square footage is hard to come by these days.
 
The pop-up shops proved to be beneficial to entrepreneurs, some of whom opened permanent shops, and also to property owners who were given a unique opportunity to showcase their spaces and were eventually able to lease them.
 
A third speaker, Michael Forsythe, Director of Resolve, an economic development corporation in Detroit, spoke to the symposium via Skype. In a city most widely discussed as one suffering from economic regression, even Detroit is seeing success with pop-up style retail.
 
"This is a chance to challenge your business model and evaluate what you can afford in rent, what do you need to tweak, things of that nature," Forsythe said. He is currently charged with helping his organization revitalize the northern edge of Detroit with its biggest retail development in the past four decades, the Shoppes at Gateway.
 
A challenge not unique to Detroit but perhaps more widespread is the condition of the building stock. "In Detroit, you have to invest in your business but eighty-five percent of the time you also have to invest in someone else's building that you're leasing," Fosythe said.
 
"We always start off with a plan of building partnerships and getting owners on board which is the most important part to transform the space."
 
Forsythe's efforts have had a heavy focus on artists and some of the programs have attracted applicants from as far away as Europe.
 
"It's the same principles that happen in any up-and-coming business district," he said. "The artists move in, some of their friends open businesses. A lot of this is about creating great neighborhoods and places to live."
 
Covington has own examples of pop-up success
 
The symposium also included a walking tour of vacant (and soon-to-be occupied) spaces in Downtown Covington where local panelists offered words of wisdom.
 
The first stop was to the vacant retail space on the corner of Pike Street & Madison Avenue inside the Mutual Building which will soon be developed into residential and updated commercial spaces. There, officials from Covington City Hall (which itself will soon become the boutique Hotel Covington) offered explanations of zoning, design, and legal issues.
 
The tour then went to a building on Pike Street that will someday soon house a Japanese bakery and at least four new apartments which was the site of a pop-up coffee shop during the Make Covington Pop event at Christmastime. The River City News and Roebling Point Books & Coffee collaborated on that pop-up, fostering a relationship that led to RCN now being housed at the coffee shop's permanent location on Greenup Street. A panel at the site included local entrepreneurs and a professor at the University of Cincinnati whose class helped make over Downtown Covington last fall.
 
Also on the panel was Erikka Gray whose pop-up shop at flow - a shop for men last Christmas inspired her to open a permanent location on Pike Street called District 78. The final stop of the walking tour was Gray's shop.
 
Covington's Maker's Market, a holiday shopping opportunity was also highlighted as a successful event last Christmas.
 
The other stop on the walking tour included advice from property owners and an architect for that perspective on the process and featured Tony Kreutzjans, Joe Meyer, and Jim Guthrie. The Pike Star building hosted that panel and will soon be the permanent of home of UpTech, the technology start-up company incubator.
 
The symposium also featured another popular "pop-up" format: food trucks. Because so many local food trucks were occupied at Cincinnati's Bunburry Music Festival, a handful of mobile food operators came to town from Lexington.
 
The task for Downtown Covington next is to take the wisdom learned from the symposium and translate it into opportunities as the urban core begins its return to its former prominence as the social and commercial center of Northern Kentucky.
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photos from the event:

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