Small businesses in New Milford can try out a storefront by opening a pop-up — with rent covered by the city

NEW MILFORD — Small business owners working virtually or out of their homes are the target of a trial opportunity the city is offering to own their own store.

The initiative, called Pop-up NM, involves designing, promoting and launching a temporary storefront for a rotating group of small business owners who want to test their business concept before committing to leasing a physical site.

The intention of the pop-up is to have no vacant storefronts in the city and also to encourage small businesses to set up shop in the city.

At a recent meeting of the New Milford City Council, the council accepted a proposal for $25,000 to start the initiative. The funds were taken from the city’s staff line to its economic development corporation.

“Our goal is to have $25,000 as a seed, but then get outside seed money to supplement it so that it then becomes self-sustaining,” Mayor Pete Bass said.

The initiative will focus on businesses with zero to five employees.

The project is being spearheaded by New Milford resident Nicholas Gunkel — who has led downtown small business activation projects in more than 10 cities in the Northeast and Midwest — with help from the New Milford Economic Development Corporation.

Gunkel will help identify and secure businesses that would be interested in leasing the space.

“The opportunity is to lower the barriers to entry for a retail organization,” said Tony Vengrove, who is with the city’s economic development corporation. “It gives them the opportunity to come for a month, which is much more affordable, (and) get training that will help them understand what will be required.” Also, (to) get some data that would help raise capital if that’s what it takes to make the leap.”

If business owners feel that their business is not thriving, another business may take over that space at the end of the month.

“We’d like to get to a point where the model for that is essentially cost-effective, because as soon as we understand what the location is and the costs associated with that, and utilities and insurance and all of that, we can get to a point where we understand what it would be the fee to get into the space,” Wengrove said.

He also added that there is an opportunity for the city to reach out and potentially get sponsorship from other businesses that may be interested in helping facilitate this.

“We’d also like to look at grant opportunities,” Wengrove said.

Another possible idea is to build a mentoring team to help advise business owners to understand the implications and planning involved in moving to a brick-and-mortar business.

An empty storefront on Bank Street near Cafe 1840 in the city, previously occupied by a music store, is being considered for the initiative.

However, pop-up stores are not limited to the center – they can be located in all parts of the city.

The project will begin in July and will take about three months to plan and design.

Helping ‘self-employed’ businesses

Gunkel said he will work on assessing the needs and interests of business owners in a given space “to find the right people for the available space, understanding the limitations we have on the spaces, but then also reaching out to people and it created a nexus fabric between many other projects that are out there,” he said.

The monthly rent for the pop-ups has not yet been determined.

Bass said the goal is for the business to be “self-sustaining.”

Of the initiative, Wengrove said the city will “look for businesses that are already doing well. So they have a good or outside business or a good online business where paying a fee that’s anywhere between $2,200 or $2,800 a month to come in just for one month, that’s not a barrier. They will understand that this is a great opportunity for their business to gain this experience,” he said. “The other part is we’d like to find businesses that are really growing and unique to what’s going on downtown.”

In addition, Vengrove said the opportunity could also be for businesses that already have a physical location and are looking for a second location.

“So this might be an opportunity to come to Litchfield County, get some experience and meet the community and try to win them over,” he said.

Bass said the pop-ups could attract businesses to the city of New Milford.

“By not having to take out a lease for a year or more, it gives them the flexibility to try out the physical scenario to see if it’s successful,” he said.

If the business owners feel they have succeeded in operating from a storefront, they will move out of the pop-up location and start their own physical store in another storefront in the city.

Selectman Hilary Ram said many business owners may be reluctant to start a brick-and-mortar business, which is why they didn’t initially set up their own business as such.

However, she added, while it’s a risk, she would encourage business owners to try it.

“For New Milford to give people that opportunity is the best thing you can do, really,” Rahm said.

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