Fare Games offers incentives for food business to locate in Washington Square

What does it take to open a food-based business? How about a deal on the rent for three years in a highly visible location, pro-bono legal counsel, and free interior design services. Would an accountant, marketing, and a cleaning service at no cost help?

The winner of Fare Games will be eligible for those services and more if they decide to apply for the chance to locate in the Washington Square neighborhood in Kalamazoo.

The 1,356-square-foot property at 1301 Portage Street is a key historic property in Washington Square that originally was built to be a bank and has been a drug store and an insurance company. The building still has the high ceilings and historical moldings.  

Finding an occupant for the vacant space is the next step in a process that started three years ago when the Kalamazoo County Land Bank began working with partners to revitalize the historic commercial hub of Washington Square at the heart of Kalamazoo's Edison neighborhood.

New and existing businesses, including a guitar shop, dance studio, and sub sandwich business have located in the once-vacant commercial suites on this block. The one remaining vacant space in Washington Square, 1301 Portage Street, is undergoing renovations in preparation for its next life as a restaurant or other food business.

Fare Games, sponsored by the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, aims to attract a food-based tenant into that space. That could be a restaurant, caterer or food production business. The Fare Games committee is targeting businesses in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, however, those from across the state are welcome to apply.

"We would like to drive traffic to Washington Square as well as engage the community," says Kelly Clarke, executive director of the Land Bank. "We understand that there are different types of food-based businesses and we want to have the competition be as broad as possible so we're keeping the door open to folks who have revenue streams from catering or other means."

If the winning business is not a traditional restaurant the applicant will be asked to demonstrate how it will be engaged in the community. Clarke suggested as an example that they could offer cooking classes or a sit-down area where tea and scones are served to show they will be part of the local community.

The Fare Games committee, formed to oversee the process, says it prefers a business that can show it will provide one or more of the following: unique, healthy and locally-sourced menu options; sit-down dining options; offerings that will draw traffic to Washington Square; assist in efforts to promote Washington Square as a safe and vibrant place for business; have an element of workforce development or community engagement; and create links between the new and existing businesses in Washington Square.

Applications are due Aug. 19, however, food-business applicants are asked to submit a letter of interest by July 15. Those who apply will be asked to be part of a community tasting of their food at the Aug. 5 Washington Square Art Hop.

The Michigan Small Business Development Center, PNC, Chase and Fifth Third are offering coaching services to those who apply. They will receive a review of their business plan and suggestions on their application.

Fare Games is modeled after Iowa's Best Bites, a similar competition that has launched three restaurants. A Land Bank board member heard of the program, suggested it, and Clarke says there has been a lot of energy around it. 

It is too early to tell what kind of response there will be to the request for proposals, but there already has been interest from the food truck community, Clarke says. Food trucks are known to be a place where some brick and mortar restaurants get their start.

“Fare Games,” says committee chair Becky Fulgoni, "is a way to get the community excited about the possibilities for this historic space and to support a talented food entrepreneur with incentives that make it possible to overcome some of the barriers that often prevent people from launching or growing a new business."

Writer: Kathy Jennings, Second Wave Media
Source: Kelly Clarke, Kalamazoo County Land Bank

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