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Poor but sexy: REVOLVE aims to re-imagine vacant storefronts and rebuild neighborhood retail

Cafe con Leche del Este pop-up in Lafayette Park, co-presented by REVOLVE.
Cafe con Leche del Este pop-up in Lafayette Park, co-presented by REVOLVE. - Nicole Rupersburg
I first discovered the pop-up concept while studying in Berlin in the summer of 2008. In Germany they call it “temporary use.” I was captivated by how urban pioneers reused vacant spaces in this post-industrial city: climbing walls in old factories, underground theaters, and my particular favorite: "the beach bar." The beach bar offered a simple solution to a big problem. Step 1 -- tear down unsightly, dilapidated factory on riverfront; step 2 -- cover site in sand; step 3 -- open a bar; step 4 -- fund clean-up with alcohol sales. Just as Berlin's pop-up model inspired me, so too does the city’s unofficial motto: “Poor but sexy.”

Poor but sexy is an apt description of the arts and retail start-up scene growing throughout Detroit. You've met them all over the city: brilliant entrepreneurs with incredible ideas, talent, and passion for reinventing Detroit. They often lack two key ingredients to get started: money and space. Enter REVOLVE. REVOLVE is a collaborative program of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation that partners with community leaders, building owners, entrepreneurs and artists to activate vacant storefronts with transformational businesses and art installations. Our goal is to fuel Detroit's retail evolution by connecting entrepreneurs and artists with low-cost, low-risk opportunities in spaces where they can experiment with ideas, ventures and engagement.

Since the program launched in Detroit’s historic West Village, we’ve learned a few key lessons about what it takes to make a successful pop-up and transform Detroit’s high-potential neighborhood business districts. Here’s a few:
Make connections. REVOLVE connects three audiences: building owners who have interesting retail spaces to fill; entrepreneurs who are looking for space to start-up or expand; and strong communities that can support a retail renaissance. In West Village, a team recruiting effort between the DEGC, the Villages CDC and two building owners started with a simple request for businesses that will fill an entire block of vacant storefronts with permanent businesses in 2013. In the meantime, we’re making it pop.
More collaboration is needed to connect businesses, building owners and high potential neighborhoods; and pop-ups seem like an ideal way to test the relationship. Pop-ups allow an entrepreneur to test a neighborhood for a month instead of the year (or more) required by a lease. It also creates the opportunity to make money, make adjustments and prove to financers and landlords that a business can succeed. Building owners benefit from getting a prospective long-term tenant and unprecedented marketing. It’s kind of like speed dating to a figure out if you want to get married without having to worry about a divorce.
If WE build it WE will come. Partnership is the key to success. Pop-ups that team up with local community organizations gain instant access to insider knowledge about the neighborhood, including direct outreach to residents eager to help and patronize the business they’ve been waiting for. Involving residents while building the pop-up creates a true sense of ownership among the customer base. The residents that lend the table and chairs collecting dust in their basement will bring their friends and family to show off the innovative new storefront they helped create.
Resources to simplify the process. At REVOLVE, we’ve developed some key tools to accelerate the pop-up process. For example, we help file temporary food licenses with the health department for our pop-ups. The simple two week permit is half off if it’s filed by a non-profit ($125 non-profit, $250 for-profit), which is one more reason to team up with REVOLVE or your local CDC. We customized a “license agreement,” kindly provided from Pittsburgh’s pop-up program, as a substitute for a lease. It’s a simple agreement between building owners, pop-up tenants and REVOLVE. Next year we’ll be releasing a guide with all the permits, checklists and resources entrepreneurs need in one place.
Tell the story. REVOLVE has helped garner a lot of attention to tell the story of the revolutionaries changing Detroit for the better. While this might be a story about REVOLVE, it’s not. It’s a story about the small businesses and creative we work with. And while we have every intention of creating more headlines in the coming years, we’re looking forward to the day new business in Detroit is old news.  
I can’t tell you exactly where REVOLVE might pop-up next. In many ways we’re just like the entrepreneurs REVOLVE supports. We are experimenting, too. This is a new kind of program for the DEGC, and we are learning as we go. What I do know, however, is that Detroit is the right city and now is the right time to show the world our entrepreneurial potential. And in the process we are giving urban innovators more opportunities to make Detroit’s retail evolution a reality.

Michael Forsyth is a Detroit Revitalization Fellow with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DECG). To follow REVOLVE on Facebook, click here.

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