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Huge vacant buildings: grants to renovate?

By Jason Freely / a couple of weeks ago
A large industrial-looking empty building

Big old factory buildings can be intimidating to revitalize. Should you start with grants? Make a presentation to the economic development leaders? The Idea Friendly Method can help. Photo by Deb Brown


The empty factory building

A reader wrote in to ask about converting and dividing up a huge old building. Because my answer isn’t quite what the reader asked for, I’ve taken the details out. This could be your town, too, couldn’t it?

I absolutely love your articles about turning vacant buildings into small shops and creating a retail space to revitalize small towns. Honestly, I have long thought something like this would do well in my small town. There was once a manufacturing plant that has been shut down for years. The building is huge, yet it is slowly falling into disrepair because it has been sitting empty.

I think this would make a wonderful shopping area if it were broken up into smaller shops. Not only that, but there is a large covered area that would make a great covered farmer’s market.

However, we live in a small rural town where most of our officials in the city office as well as the economic development authority, do not really think outside the box. I would like to pitch this idea to them; however, I do not think they will be receptive if I do not have information such as possible grants or an expert’s advice.

So my question to you is:

1) Can you give me some ideas on where to search to find grants for vacant building restoration?

2) Can you give me examples of other towns/cities that have offered incentives to potential businesses to fill up the spaces? and

3) If the first two options are not persuasive enough, would you be willing to come in and give a presentation to the economic development association and mayor?

Any assistance you can lend would be greatly appreciated. I would really like to help our town become a better version of itself for my children to grow up in.

Where not to start

Unless the city or economic development group owns the building, I wouldn’t involve them at least at first. And I wouldn’t look for funding, at least at first.

You have to change your entire mindset. Instead of starting with officials, you start with regular people. Instead of starting with plans to convert the whole building and where to find grants and how to use incentives and everything, start a lot smaller.

How to start smaller and build momentum

Hold a picnic with friends and fellow dreamers (and maybe the more open-minded officials) somewhere near the building and dream big! But start really small. Start by talking about the potential and find the other people who are interested. Maybe pass around some of those articles about converting empty buildings that helped inspire you. Talk about those inspiring examples.

Think about holding a walk-through with others (maybe even officials) who might be interested and discuss all the potential where you can see it.

As you pointed out, the officials will be really hard to convince if you start at their meeting on their turf and on their terms. It’s hard to think about the positive potential when you’re in a meeting room at a formal meeting with a lot of rules and a hundred other things on the agenda. So change the whole game by going a lot smaller, a lot more temporary, at the location and a lot more about building a groundswell.

Make your first “big” goal to borrow the building for a pop-up temporary one day event, maybe in that big covered part. That will help you prove the potential and draw even more excited people to you.

Where you find the grants

When you get more and more people involved, you’re Gathering Your Crowd which is part of the Idea Friendly Method. With more and more people, you get more and more connections to different people and to the resources you’re looking for. Different people know different things and come up with different ideas. That’s why you want to include widely diverse people in your network.

You’ll network your way to grants together. And you’ll work on convincing the officials together. And together you’ll brainstorm alternatives you’d never come up with on your own. That’s the Idea Friendly way to start on revitalizing that huge factory building.

Deb Brown and I teach a lot more about this Idea Friendly Method for rebuilding your local economy in our new video at SaveYour.Town called Rebuilding Your Local Economy.

Register here

About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband have a small cattle ranch and are lifelong entrepreneurs. Becky is an international speaker on small business and rural topics.

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