#2 Most Viewed | Downtown Bellingham Partnership hatches a plan to fill vacancies

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This story was originally published on July 5, 2015. 

By Oliver Lazenby
The Bellingham Business Journal

Imagine a downtown space that allows start-up retailers, dance and fitness instructors and other entrepreneurs to try their business ideas without the commitment and upfront cost of signing a lease. Now imagine that space moving from one vacant downtown storefront to the next, leaving behind new businesses with each move.

That’s Nick Hartrich’s vision for filling downtown vacancies and, in the process, giving entrepreneurs a place to try out new ideas.

Hartrich, director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, is starting this summer with a city-owned storefront at 1302 Commercial St., a challenging space hidden behind the Parkade ramp that has been vacant for three years. The space, called Hatch, would accommodate businesses of all kinds and provide a venue for lectures, concerts and educational discussions and presentations.

“It’s a way for companies to start small, selling their product in a storefront without the need to make enough to cover rent,” Hartrich said. “It’s a way for us to watch businesses either fail fast and cheap, or succeed.”

He envisions a dynamic space with minimal infrastructure and mobile furniture that would allow Hatch to change and accommodate different businesses. A day at Hatch could start with a 6 a.m. yoga class. Small retailers could share the space in the late morning and afternoon, and in the evening musicians could play concerts. The walls could be a rotating art gallery.

But it would all have to move if Hatch attracts a paying tenant, or if one of the business experiments that begins in the space wants to lease it long-term.

“What if someone wants to come in and rent? That’s ideal,” he said. “If someone comes to rent it, whether or not we have something to do with it, that’s awesome.”

When and if that happens, Hatch could pop up in another vacant downtown storefront. Hartrich is pitching the idea to major downtown property owners and leasing agents. He calls it a win-win, as the “hip, curated space” he has in mind will be more attractive to businesses than an empty space with a “for lease” sign in the window.

“Our plan is to prove that this works in the public sector and take it to the private sector,” Hartrich said. “To be smart in this case we have to think our program is going to succeed, and if that’s the case we have to have our eyes on the next prize.”

Hatch’s first location on Commercial Street, in between Gary’s Mens and Womens Wear and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership’s office, has been empty since Stamp and Coin moved out in late 2012. The storefront is behind the ramp to the underground parking in the Parkade and hard to see from the street.

“I think in general it’s just one of those things — some spots are more difficult to fill than others and the right person hasn’t looked at that spot,” said Gary Lupo, owner of Gary’s. “Maybe the right business isn’t even aware of that spot.”

On June 1, the Bellingham City Council unanimously approved a deal to allow the Downtown Bellingham Partnership to use the space on a month-to-month basis rent-free. The partnership will pay utilities, provide insurance coverage, pay a $1,450 damage deposit and cover the city’s leasehold excise tax.

“It’s something that the city administration is supportive of simply because we have been trying to rent the space out for such a long time,” said Ted Carlson, city public works director, at a council meeting. “We’ve tried several things to activate it but I think this is unique because it will be more than just putting things in the store front, it will be bringing people down there.”

If the partnership finds a one-year tenant for the space the city will reimburse up to six months worth of leasehold excise tax, which is a tax that public entities pay on leased properties instead of property tax.

Details such as whether the businesses who use the space will pay the partnership are still being worked out, Hartrich said.

For nearby business owners the vacant space is a break in the flow of downtown shopping. When customers walk out of Garys’ nothing pulls them down the street past the vacancy to the shops beyond.

“Any vacancy creates a blip in the flow for shopping,” said Heather Baker, owner of Lulu, a clothing and accessories store on the same block as the Parkade. “If that space becomes activated, it could change the street dramatically.”

Baker and other downtown business owners may be involved with Hatch as mentors. Baker is on the Downtown Bellingham Partnership’s board of directors.

Western Washington University’s IDEA Institute — the InterDisciplinary Entrepreneurship in Action Institute — will also work with Hatch. Students will be involved in a way that will give them experience with startup businesses, though the details are still being worked out.

Hartrich got keys to the Commercial Street space in early July. He plans to make a few improvements to it — pull up the carpet, paint the walls, a few lighting tweaks — and get something in the space by late July, he said.

Since Hartrich took over as director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership earlier this year, he’s already changed his block on Commercial Street. The self-described “lighting nerd” hung new lightbulbs from the unused fluorescent light fixtures hanging above his standing desk, organized a design contest that resulted in a new logo for the partnership, and had new windows installed that open and allow him to engage with people passing by his office. He has a clear goal for his street.

“This is commercial street, so commerce should be happening here,” he said. “We’re going to see that happens to some degree.”

Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or olazenby@bbjtoday.com

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