Filling the Void
Who’s going to fill the empty space?
More than predictable lyrics to a sappy pop ballad, these words may be close to a truthful pleading from many inner-ring suburbs across the country.
They’re likely asking: Who’s going to fill the vacant commercial spaces in our city?
With an estimated 89 vacant retail properties in the city of Cleveland Heights, according to the Commercial District Inventory of Cleveland Heights study published in 2013 by FutureHeights, the question is a legitimate one—and one that can be addressed with competitive strategy.
If the matter is important, don’t guess! Cleveland Heights must identify and weigh crucial elements that define the contest. The place to start is with a measureable definition of the goal. Next, determine the competitive environment and define the geographic area, participants and parties influential to the outcome. Define factors such as who, current positions held (on issues), resources, vested interests and related motivations.
Define the market. In the case of commercial vacancies, many influencing factors exist. The “givens,” such as what’s offered and where, help to define the next dimension: the target market segments (including competition), why and what we seek from each. Once we’ve collected and evaluated, we have a map; we have the landscape understood, and our current position and goal plotted.
With these factors and others in play, how can our city attract business operators (existing or start-up) to set up shop here when they could be lured by many others?
Segment: Who do we want to convince? Yes, the primary objective is for companies to stay, move back to, or start anew in our city. The plan to achieve this will not have every step aimed at the specific outcome. In other words, each step is not a direct solicitation to move or stay here. If our city is not prepared, should we invite consideration before we are certain we can make a good impression? Premature action has lost many more battles than the absolute strength of the opposition.
So targeting is not just related to groups of individuals, businesses or institutions, but issues as well. For the immediate purposes of this column, the following groups seem to be the best high-level targets to start with: 1. Current commercial tenants and owners. (Our city needs to keep what it has. In order to accomplish this, current occupants’ demands, needs and perceptions of fulfillment must be understood.); 2. Potential tenants and vacant-property owners. (Based on what our city has now, who would consider it? Who are possible secondary candidates?); and 3. Institutions (government and otherwise), regulators and other influencers. (Here, knowing the rules is necessary in order to know what can and can’t be done with commercial properties.)
What will we say? In marketing terms, the case for acceptance and belief of what you are saying is often called the “value proposition.” Naturally, any city has a generally accepted value proposition—a list of assets and benefits that make it appealing. Then, to be most effective, the value proposition is refined to points meaningful to each discreet targeted market segment and issue.
The above steps are necessary, even if we think we know all about our current assets. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t guess or assume. Doing the work of appropriate analysis and planning—before competing—prevents undermining the confidence of those already on our side.
Prospects and even followers need to be recruited and given a picture of the situation, their role in it, high-level action expected of them and the timing, and what the general and individual benefits and risks may be.
Make our case. Once the value proposition and messages are developed, including the appeal to each audience, recognize that public relations are just the beginning. Each step in a full campaign to fill vacant commercial properties will need that same grounding and basis—with a start-to-finish outlook, quantified and timed outcomes, and measurement and evaluation phases to make the next cycle of effort even more productive.
We’ve got them—now what? Whether the victories are found in returning operators, pioneers who ventured to the city for the first time (whether seasonal pop-up or permanent, by the way), or flexible property owners who see the big picture, their presence must be sustained.
If you’ll pardon another cliché, any good relationship requires work from both sides. The relationship requires checking in to make sure everyone’s “good,” getting ahead of future plans or ambitions, and seeking ways to work together for mutual benefit.
We may not fill every vacant commercial space, but when we account for and weigh the factors influencing our commercial districts, we can make ourselves much more visible, appealing and accessible to those unique prospects who can fill those empty spaces.
Jinida Doba is an associate with Cleveland Heights-based Dorsey & Company Strategic Consultants to Management. Doba has called Cleveland Heights home since 2010.