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New ‘I Love IC’ retail referral program aims to fill vacant storefronts in Iowa City

Published: Jul. 13, 2021 at 5:51 PM CDT
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IOWA CITY Iowa (KCRG) - Vacant storefronts, in some places, are still a common sight after the past year shut many businesses down.

However, now, some say they are starting to see spaces fill up again.

“When you go to a downtown area, and you see stores empty, you think, hmm what’s happening,” Darlene Bergman, with the shop Textiles, said.

The boutique where Bergman works in downtown Iowa City struggled during the pandemic, but she said it’s starting to see improvement.

“The more interesting shops there are downtown, the more people will be downtown. Even just today, we had several customers from out of state who just found us and walked in,” Bergman said.

That same thinking is driving a new incentive effort to fill vacant storefronts: the Iowa City Downtown District’s new “I Love IC” retail referral program.

“It stems from the idea that there’s a lot of people that love downtown Iowa City, and want to see it prosper and succeed, and we saw that over the past year,” Nancy Bird, the downtown district’s executive director, said.

The program will give $500 to anyone who refers a business to downtown Iowa City, and that business signs a lease on a downtown store space. Residents can also earn a $10 downtown gift card for any referral that results in a business owner contacting the Downtown District.

”If you’re interested in retail and know of other stores that can be great down here or people who are emerging entrepreneurs that need support and help and might want to locate downtown, there’s an opportunity for them,” Bird said.

The district launched similar grant build-outs earlier this year, and it’s issuing their first one next week. Bird says these efforts are also to help fill vacant storefronts from the past year.

“Roughly 20% of the businesses downtown in the restaurant and retail category did not make it. 10% of those businesses however were sold,” Bird said.

The other 10% they are working on filling, for the long term. Bird said she has high hopes for those vacancies after this Summer.

“We’re going to be where we were pre-pandemic, which is remarkable quite frankly,” Bird said.

People can learn more about the grants on the district’s website.

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