Pop-up retail is a fun and creative way to activate and promote underutilized storefronts. In December 2015, we had the opportunity to do a pop-up retail PlacePOP project with Allegan leaders to create vibrancy, boost foot-traffic, and encourage economic growth in the city’s downtown. Through the work of the Allegan city manager, city staff, elected officials, and a strong group of community and business leaders, Allegan built off an existing downtown celebration and shopping experience, Festive Fridays, to host four pop-up retail spaces through the month of December.
Allegan is a city of about 5,000 people and is no stranger to placemaking. As a 2013 recipient of the League’s PlacePlan grant, the community has a strong relationship with the League and values place-based improvements. Through their PlacePOP experience, communities across the state can understand the impact of pop-up retail and learn important lessons from their experience.
Allegan PlacePOP clearly demonstrates the power of placemaking. Pop-up retail was an opportunity to enhance an already successful event by bringing new energy and excitement to the downtown. After December’s events, community leaders most involved in planning the pop-ups reconvened for a debrief meeting in January 2016. Here, and through one-on-one interviews with key individuals, the stakeholder group discussed the project’s short- and long-term impacts. Stakeholders agreed that they clearly met the expectations identified through the project’s vision and goals, and they identified a number of additional accomplishments:
- Building owners showcased available storefronts to hundreds of prospective tenants and buyers;
- Vendors and entrepreneurs tested products and business strategy, built clients, and met like-minded entrepreneurs working towards similar goals;
- Building owners were able to show their investment and passion for the community while residents had a unique opportunity to get involved in a common effort.
More than anything, Allegan PlacePOP was a clear illustration to the community, visitors, and the state that the city is innovative, collaborative, and focused on place. Many small- and mid-sized communities would never consider implementing a pop-up retail project because they believe pop-ups can only be successful in larger municipalities; clearly that is not the case. This project displays Allegan’s unique focus on placemaking and willingness to creatively collaborate with residents and business owners to achieve a common goal. Shining light on initiatives like PlacePOP can help attract talent and businesses that will contribute to the city’s economic success.
Pop-up retail projects can happen anywhere. With Allegan leading the way, other communities can learn from their experiences implement similar projects in their city centers.
It takes city leadership to get the project started, but it takes community ownership to get the project completed. Allegan’s city manager is a strong advocate for place and was able to rally the community around a place-focused project. The manager initiated preliminary discussions with the League and acted as host to get the right people in the room as he organized the first community meeting. This is a strong leadership skill, but the more challenging skill was illustrated as he quickly stepped aside to let residents take ownership of the project.
- Use an external, neutral facilitator to inspire, rally, and bridge new relationships. The project was able to avoid political turbulence with the League, rather than the city, as project manager. The League’s knowledge on placemaking and illustration of examples from across Michigan served as a way to educate and inspire Allegan leaders that was slightly different than the internal perspectives residents hear more frequently at the local level.
- Agree upon clearly defined project goals and objectives at the beginning of the process. At the very first meeting, the group discussed and agreed on the project’s vision and goals and took on tasks as soon as they left the room. With regular communication and check-ins, leaders were able to carry out responsibilities, while having enough ownership to get creative and take the lead on tasks that most interested them. This got everyone moving in a unified direction and set the tone for what it would take to implement a successful project.
- Start with the right location and event. To succeed in pop-up retail, there has to be enough foot traffic that make it worthwhile for vendors and building owners. With “shop local” initiatives already in the forefront during the holiday season, Festive Friday proved to be a successful event to build on. Similarly, the location has an important role in the project’s success. Downtown Allegan is walkable, aesthetically pleasing, and safe so people were willing to walk from store to store. A more sprawling, car-focused part of town would likely be less impactful for multiple pop-up vendors and building owners.
- Have fun. It’s clear that people in Allegan are driven to do what they enjoy; spending time with their neighbors, being creative, and supporting the community they love. This experience is what encouraged the community to step up and take the lead.