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FROM SURVIVAL MODE TO GROWTH MODE
The prime location of Dredgers Union extends to its welcoming interior and varied offerings: Boasting high ceilings and vintage wood floors, the store features lamps, bedding, kitchen items, perfumes and soaps, women's lounge apparel — even a children's section. Since launching the store in July, DeBoe and Bilovecky have been surprised by the number of out-of-town visitors they've seen.
"They ask if I have a location in their city, and then rave about the store and insist that I open one where they live," DeBoe says with a laugh. "I'm excited because we're providing out-of-towners with a more well-rounded retail experience."
The creators of Dredgers Union also hope their private-label clothing line will gain attention elsewhere. "We really want Dredgers Union to stand out on a national platform as being something truly special," says Bilovecky, who attracted widespread buzz for creating his own clothing line, Wrath Arcane, before partnering with DeBoe.
Kubinski of CLE Clothing also hopes to get a boost from increasing tourism — especially as the Medical Mart, Convention Center, and Horsehoe Casino open their doors. His new store is located adjacent to Positively Cleveland, the travel and tourism agency for Northeast Ohio. A cut-out door between the two storefronts has turned CLE Clothing into the agency's de facto gift shop.
"Instead of the lame stuff usually for sale in visitors' centers, they can buy something locally designed and unique," he says. "It's a cool relationship that's just beginning."
As for ventures like Joy Machines, Nosse says his business will grow with the neighborhood. As Ohio City has become a more popular place to live in recent years, retail choices have lagged behind, he says. Yet now, stores are filling the gap.
"There was definitely an underserved market in Ohio City," says Nosse. "We often hear people say to us, 'I've always wanted there to be a bike shop right around here that does what you guys are doing.' So it seems like we were pretty spot-on."
AN ENCOURAGING CLIMATE
If you're looking for an upside to the economic downturn, Kubinski says that it lies in the fact that commercial real estate is more affordable than it's been in decades. The plethora of spiffy, cheap storefronts convinced him to take the plunge into retail.
"When we started looking, we found nice spaces for four to five hundred bucks a month," he says. "You can get a storefront for minimal cost and give life back to the city."
Rock-bottom prices coupled with low-interest financing and a host of incentives have proven to be a magic formula for attracting new retailers, says Wobser of Ohio City Inc. "We received start-up grant dollars from Charter One Bank, and they've been a huge success. It allowed a group of entrepreneurs sitting on the edge to take a leap and go for it."
Although Charter One funding was limited to the Ohio City neighborhood, a bevy of other incentives are available to retailers and property owners in Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs. They include the City of Cleveland's Storefront Renovation Program, as well as low-interest loans and grants from the city's Economic Development Department. In inner-ring suburbs around Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Department of Economic Development also offers a Storefront Renovation Program, which includes a rebate to owners and tenants who complete signage and other improvements.
Nosse launched Joy Machines with the help of a $9,000 Charter One grant, coupled with a match from the property owner. Although he and Pereira-Castillo already knew they wanted to open a bike shop, the grant kicked things into high gear. "We went from talking about it to opening the shop in six months."
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The region's fledgling indie stores are successful because they're filling critical gaps within the urban market, Wobser asserts. National chains have long overlooked neighborhoods like Ohio City because of their complex, economically diverse population, which simply doesn't fit their cut-and-dried model of counting rooftops and household income. The new stores rushing in to fill the gap are providing basic goods and services.
"This new wave of retailers is tapping into a niche, urban market by catering to locals and providing more everyday products — items like bikes and flowers," he says.
Ironically, small shops might be flourishing in part because of the proliferation of Walmart, Target and other big boxes throughout Northeast Ohio, CSU's Simons says. "The entrepreneurs come in because the Walmarts have knocked out their mom-and-pop competition, but the Walmarts don't knock them out because they're flies," he says. "Can you pack a bunch of these in an area and make a node out of it? Online businesses are on the rise, but service businesses will survive that trend."
That's not saying that it's easy or without its stumbling blocks. Being a shopkeeper often means enduring long hours, little or no staff support, and daunting financial risk. Yet many say it's worth it to do what they love — and to find success on their own terms.
"Five years after starting my business, I realize how hard it is to be sustainable, let alone profitable," says Dunn, who launched her store to "revive" her own passion for life and work. Starting Revive was the most difficult thing she's ever done, and along the way she's taken on heavy debt and even tested the strength of her marriage. "Yet for the artisans that we work with, I'm often their biggest link to the U.S. market," she says. "When I look back at what we've done, I feel fantastic."
Nosse loves being around bikes and working with customers so much that he doesn't mind the regular 10-hour days. "I've met so many cool and interesting people, and we see ourselves as a community space," he says. Indeed, Joy Machines has become a hub for the cycling community and serves as the launch point for group rides.
While the rise of small, urban shopkeepers may be a hot new trend in North Collinwood or Ohio City, the phenomenon is, in many ways, as ancient as human settlement. "These shop owners are recreating a lifestyle that was displaced just in the last century by the automobile," Wobser says. "Residents of Ohio City still value the experience of shopping in a small, local store that is part of a neighborhood."
As for Wlady? He continues to toil away in his trailer three days a week. At least his work gets him out of the house, he says. Yet the octogenarian might also take comfort in the fact that his bootstraps success has not been lost on the newest generation.
"When you don't have much opportunity, you have to grab what you can," he says, offering a crinkled, sage smile and turning back to his workbench piled with shoes.