Business

Have a business idea? You could get a year rent-free in downtown Cedar Rapids

The Veterans Memorial Building is reflected in the CRST tower as the sunset lights up the downtown Cedar Rapids skyline. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The Veterans Memorial Building is reflected in the CRST tower as the sunset lights up the downtown Cedar Rapids skyline. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A creative entrepreneur could win one year of free rent in commercial space in downtown Cedar Rapids — plus marketing assistance — through a new business competition called “Race for the Space,” being promoted by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and its Downtown District.

The initiative, which would occur in 2020, is intended to continue the post-2008 flood recovery momentum in downtown Cedar Rapids “by seeking out the next exciting, must-see destination in the district,” according to an Economic Alliance newsletter.

“We are hoping for anyone with an entrepreneurial bone in their body — this would whet their whistle,” said Jesse Thoeming, director of the Cedar Rapids Downtown District self-supported municipal improvement district. “How could it not?”

The winner could be “an experiential retailer, event space, makerspace, dual-purpose business or a wildly different culinary experience,” according to the newsletter. Thoeming said the district is keeping an open mind about who can apply.

“In a world that is increasingly shifting to online interactions, we’re looking for someone with a big idea that will draw people to downtown Cedar Rapids and thus lead to more foot traffic for existing businesses,” according to the newsletter.

The concept is not unique to Cedar Rapids and is modeled after a competition by the same name in Ithaca, N.Y., which started in 2011 and was replicated in 2017.

After 25 applications the first time, the most recent contest there had 17 applications, an overall winner and incentives for four runners-up, according to a 2017 news release from the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.

The program, including the assistance for marketing, promotion and business acumen, proved to be something akin to a business incubator, Thoeming said.

The hope is to attract regional interest with a new idea or an expansion of an existing business, he said.

Details still are in the works, including a competition timeline and logistics, but the plan is to begin accepting applications in early 2020. In announcing it now, the organizations hope to get entrepreneurs thinking and pique the interest of potential property-owner partners, he said.

A request for proposals for space for the winner is expected to be sent to property owners.

Darryl High, a member of the Downtown District’s innovation council, which is putting the competition together, said several large downtown property owners are “excited” about the exposure the program should bring.

“We are hoping it will be another tool for the toolbox and drive interest and help locate new businesses or expanding businesses into new areas,” High said. “I think the promotion is just going to bring more perspective of what is available in terms of what types of spaces we have, and it is a great opportunity to get some incentives.”

An internal grading rubric has been created to rank and score applicants on areas such as viability/sustainability, economic impact, innovative, residency of the owner, cultural/environmental fit, green/eco friendly and “if they stand out via an opening summary on the application,” according to Downtown District meeting minutes from September. Four prospective winners would have the opportunity to “pitch” their business ideas at a launch event, according to the meeting minutes.

The contest has a $45,000 to $50,000 budget, $10,000 of which would be for marketing and the remaining spent to help offset costs of rent and space design, according to the minutes.

The Downtown District is supported by an extra tax generated from properties within the district.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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