Toolkit for building downtowns gets a new sparkplug

The Downtown Retail and Restaurant Rent Subsidization Program is as straightforward as the name implies.

New retailers and restaurateurs that want to locate in downtown Benton Harbor, St. Joseph or Stevensville now can be part of a program designed to keep rent low during their first 12 months, the period when a business getting off the ground is most likely to need a break.

Announced Sept. 24 among the colorful furniture and accessories at HarborTown Interiors in downtown St. Joseph, the program is intended to serve as a catalyst for downtown development in the three communities.

Officials and retailers gathered around the counter of the furniture and design store as Gregory Vaughn, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Cornerstone Alliance, introduced the recipients of the subsidies and gave details of the pilot program intended to stabilize the three downtown business districts by filling vacant store fronts.

An area is mapped out in each of the three communities where new retail and restaurant businesses are eligible for the loan program.

The one-year subsidy is a loan equal to 50 percent of the rent with a cap at $3 per square foot or $5,000 per property. The interest-free loan is forgiven for business owners who stay in business three years. They pay nothing if they remain in continuous operation.

Those eligible are "for profit" businesses that don't duplicate others already in place.

When business owners apply for the rent subsidy at that time they are matched up with programs intended to help them build skills they need to succeed. Participation in training and mentoring in the Cornerstone Alliance Small Business Services department is a condition of obtaining the rent subsidy.

There are other expectations business owners will be asked to fulfill, too. Retailers must be open at least six days a week and 48 hours weekly. They must obtain a bookkeeper and attorney approved by the Cornerstone's business services department. Business owners should fill out their application for a subsidy before they sign a lease.

Altogether there are 10 conditions Cornerstone Alliance asks new businesses to meet.

Vaughn says there's no fixed amount set aside for the program as Cornerstone made some adjustments to its current budget to find the money for the subsidies.

There is enough funding, however, to provide rent subsidies for six to eight businesses and while Cornerstone Alliance would be happy if it turned out there were two businesses in each community that could take advantage of the program, Vaughn says, instead of earmarking a certain amount for each community the money will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

Stephanie Grill, of HarborTown Interiors, and Ethel Golliday, of Murfee's Boutique, came to Cornerstone Alliance asking for a program to be put in place. Vaughn says Cornerstone had been looking at such a program for several years and with two businesses ready to open their doors it seemed the right time to get the pilot program up and running.

Cornerstone especially appreciated the uniqueness of both businesses -- an edge Vaughn says businesses must have today in order to compete.

HarborTown Interiors was unique because St. Joseph had lost its sole downtown furniture store, but beyond that the three co-owners of HarborTown Interiors have shown a unique ability to offer looks from edgy and urban to more traditional.

Stephanie Grill, Kerry Cressler and Mary Kay Hylton were employees of Great Lakes Interiors. When it closed they decided to work together to make sure downtown St. Joseph had a furniture store as it has for the past 100 years.

It took the three owners a year to get the 2,400-square-foot store at 613 Broad St. just they way they wanted it before their July 3 opening. And it took long hours right up until it was time to open the doors for the holiday traffic to create the showplace. Their landlord has proven to be understanding, as well, considering he allowed them to paint the ceiling brown and glue objects to the bathroom floor to make it look as if they had just washed up on the beach.

They describe their specialty as relaxed living and are quick to point out that it is local customers that will help keep their business thriving.

"We're not just for tourists or second homes," Grill says. "It's the local business that keeps us going."

The store been so well-received they've started collecting the comments shoppers make as they walk in the doors. "Stinkin' cute," "flippin' fabulous" and "eye candy" are just a few of the ways customers have reacted.

"One woman said I want my house to look just like your store,"  Grill says.

The store offers home furnishings, accessories, lamps and light fixtures, mattresses and bed coverings, area rugs and art -- all in an environment that invites shoppers to linger over their decisions.

Following advice from people they interviewed before opening, the store has what Grill describes as "rock bottom best prices" every day.

HarborTown Interiors also features many American made products and wood furniture made from reclaimed lumber. Products by manufacturers using green practices can be found throughout the store.

Grill thanked the city for its efforts in trimming the trees and other work to clean up the area before the opening. Derek Perry, who serves as the assistant city manager for St. Joseph and the interim village manager in Stevensville, said the city was happy that "all the stars aligned" so that the new furniture store could open where there had been two vacant store fronts.

At Murfee's Boutique, Ethel Golliday brings 15 years retail experience to her new store. Golliday may be familiar to locals since she had the successful R. Murphy's Career Fashion store in Benton Harbor for 10 years before moving to Grand Rapids.

Golliday proudly shows visitors through her store at 82 W. Main Street in Benton Harbor displaying the store design she created herself, the changing rooms her husband built and the racks of clothing and accessories. She rattles off designer names -- Lilly Taylor, Donna Vinci, Lisa Rae -- as she holds up colorful and trendy apparel.

The suits, dresses and blouses -- many with clever pleats and textured details -- she discovered when she traveled to a merchandise market in Dallas,Texas. Her store features clothing women can wear to the office and church, which range in price from a $35 blouse to a $375 suit.

Not to mention hats, purses and other accessories so women can put together a complete look before leaving the store.

Golliday has one employee, Donna Kaczmarek, and plans to add more staff as business grows. "I work where Ethel needs me," says Kaczmarek.

Between the time she previously ran her own store and opening this one Golliday says she has obtained an associates degree in business. She also worked diligently with the Women's Business Center at Cornerstone Alliance to create the business. She rents her 1,900 square foot space from Cornerstone Alliance, which owns the property at 80 W. Main St. In addition to the rent subsidy offered through the pilot program she also received a microloan from Cornerstone Alliance.

Golliday and the owners of HarborTown Interiors are all looking forward to upcoming celebrations of their openings. HarborTown Interiors will celebrate Oct. 7 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Murfee's open house will be Oct. 15 at 11:30 a.m.

Cornerstone Alliance President Wendy Dant Chesser says new development already is bringing people to the three downtowns and the group hopes to aid the commercial districts so they benefit fully from the opportunities being created.

Kathy Jennings is Editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave and a freelance writer an editor.

Photos by Erik Hollday

Mary Kay Hylton, Kerry Cressler and Stephanie Grill have opened HarborTown Interiors in downtown St. Joseph.

Stephanie Grill, Mary Kay Hylton and Kerry Cressler of HarborTown Interiors.

Ethel Golliday at Murfee's Boutique in downtown Benton Harbor.

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