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Downtown Akron program attracts entrepreneurs with rental assistance, promotes diversity

Main Street in downtown Akron
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
The Start Downtown program puts small business owners in a storefront in downtown Akron.

A program that provides storefront space in Downtown Akron for diverse entrepreneurs is open for its latest round of applications.

The Start Downtown program, which is run by Downtown Akron Partnership, provides rental assistance for entrepreneurs to occupy a storefront in downtown Akron. The program helps business owners become self-sufficient, Director of Business Relations and Business Development Kimberly Beckett said.

“Each month you get a percentage of your rent," Beckett said, "and it starts higher and declines over time.”

The rental assistance allows entrepreneurs to work on other aspects of their business, Beckett said.

"They can focus on getting their social media and marketing up and running and their merchandising down," Beckett said.

Downtown Akron Partnership assists in locating downtown space and helps businesses with marketing.

Downtown Akron Partnership President Suzie Graham hopes the program will create a more welcoming downtown.

“This program is again hyper focused specifically to stand up additionally female or woman owned and minority owned businesses in the district to help us diversify the storefront operation," Graham said.

The program aligns with the city’s economic development plan Elevate Greater Akron. One of the plan’s goals is to uplift minority owned businesses and encourage new growth. The plan also focuses on Akron's Black population, ensuring they can share the benefits of the city's economy, and on revitalizing and developing businesses downtown.

A recent poll from the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research found that more than 60% of respondents think the city should focus on helping small businesses grow rather than attracting large businesses. However, only 19% of respondents said Akron should invest in downtown over neighborhoods.

Despite the pandemic causing more businesses to move out of brick and mortar stores and some companies embracing working from home, there's still a need for more physical storefronts in downtown Akron, Beckett said.

"There's still like the need and desire if we're talking about retail particularly you know things for people to do when they come and they're here for whatever reason brings them to downtown," Beckett said.

Applications for this round of funding are open until March 3.

The Start Downtown program began in 2015 as the Pop Up Retail Program and has brought 18 businesses to downtown over six grant cycles. The program is funded by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation.

This story was funded by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation.

Updated: March 4, 2023 at 1:10 PM EST
This story has been updated to include a note about the funder.
Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.