Downtown Bellingham Partnership's plan to fill downtown vacancies has its first success

About three years ago, Renee Sherrer began looking for a downtown space where she could teach classes on sewing, draping, and other forms of textile arts, and also sell jewelry, women’s clothing and other retail items. She wanted a space with both long-term parking and a steady stream of foot traffic.

A city-owned storefront at 1302 Commercial St., next to the downtown parking garage, has sat empty since Sherrer started her unhurried search. The two found each other this fall, in part because of a project aimed at making the bare storefront more lively.

Sherrer’s new business, Social Fabric, signals an early success for the Downtown Bellingham Partnership’s creative plan for filling downtown vacancies. The partnership, with support from the City of Bellingham in the form of free rent, opened a pop-up shop for small retailers, dance and yoga instructors and other entrepreneurs in the space, which is between Gary’s Men’s and Women’s Wear and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership office, in September.

The project, called Hatch, had two goals: to give budding entrepreneurs a low risk venue to try out their business ideas rent-free, and to draw attention to the long-vacant space in hopes of attracting a paying tenant.

Not long after the Downtown Bellingham Partnership took over the space, Sherrer wandered in.

Though it’s on a busy downtown street, some think the storefront is challenging for retailers. It’s next to the ramp to the downtown parking garage and it lacks street parking.

“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, last summer.

Parking a necessity

Sherrer, a sewing instructor at Whatcom Community College, seems to be the right person for the spot. Proximity to the downtown parking garage is almost a necessity for her since her students will need to park for longer than the two-hour limit imposed on downtown metered spaces, she said.

Beyond that, the 1,700-square-foot space is the right size for Sherrer.

She filled one corner of the store with a long table where she plans to teach her hands-on courses. The rest of the shop has displays for retail items including clothing, Sherrer’s line of scarves, and such oddball items as belts and jewelry made from repurposed bicycle tires.

Social Fabric’s retail products have a focus on art. (Sherrer considers herself an artist first and foremost. “I always have an art studio,” she said. “I would sleep on the floor before I wouldn’t have a studio.”)

Sherrer’s textile art hangs on the wall and decorates the spare spaces of the shop. With her art, Sherrer likes to stretch the definition of textile, she said. Examples on display at Social Fabric include a dress made from pasta and another made from bras.

“The trick is to take an unusual material and make it as elegant as if it were silk,” Sherrer said.

Her career in textile arts includes everything from designing and marketing her own line of clothing to owning a clothing store in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, 75 miles south of San Jose. She has her own line of scarves and silk accessories called Renee-Renee and she’s also selling Social Fabric-brand products.

Her classes will draw on all her experience in the fashion and textile industry, including marketing and business, she said.

Did Hatch work?

Sherrer may not have considered the space if she hadn’t been in it during a recycled art competition hosted by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership last summer, she said.

That was the partnership’s goal for Hatch, to be a dragnet for potential paying tenants and to allow them to see the space full of activity—with small retailers, yoga classes, or workshops that gave the storefront an appeal its bare walls didn’t have.

“A lot of times a vacancy looks like a giant blank canvas. They don’t know where to start,” said Dylan Green, visual and communications coordinator with the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. “That’s where Hatch comes in. We give them some ideas for what it could be.”

Sherrer also credits the space’s leasing agent at Saratoga Commercial Real Estate, who showed her the floor plan for the space when Sherrer was interested in a different downtown vacancy.

Hatch 2.0 opens soon

Nick Hartrich, Downtown Bellingham Partnership executive director, said the Hatch experiment attracted attention faster than he expected. Hatch was open for a little more than two months before it had to close to make way for Social Fabric.

That success roused the attention of other downtown property owners and leasing agents, Hartrich said, and finding a spot for the second iteration of Hatch wasn’t hard.

“It started to get interest from private-sector owners,” he said. “I think through the success of Hatch 1.0, through activities and work and excitement around Hatch, we were able to generate a really strong lead.”

Hatch 2.0 will open on Jan. 8 at 221 Prospect St., north of the Whatcom Museum on a block with several other vacancies. The new space is 2,800 square feet, 1,100 square feet bigger than the old location. Like the first Hatch location, the storefront has been vacant for several years, Hartrich said.

The new location will have it’s own challenges. It’s in a less-traveled area at the edge of downtown, between Barry’s A-Ace Bail Bonds and a couple other vacancies. There are fewer shops and more public sector buildings—the library and the Whatcom County Courthouse are nearby—and fewer shoppers.

Like the first iteration, the second Hatch will have a month-to-month lease and its occupants will have to move as soon as a paying tenant comes along.

“It’s definitely going to come with its challenges but it will be more streamlined than the first one,” Hartrich said.

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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