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3 Small Business Themes from ICSC 2022 Las Vegas

June 2, 2022

The marketplaces industry is thinking big about small business. As the consumer ecosystem regains its footing after the body blows of the COVID pandemic, attendees at ICSC 2022 Las Vegas focused on three themes addressing small businesses’ role in a post-pandemic economy:

  • Communities want local and regional businesses in their centers and mixed-use developments.
  • Developers are looking for growing businesses that need brick-and-mortar space.
  • Entrepreneurs are looking for help as they tackle the business of running a business.

The pandemic took its toll on small businesses, which closed in the thousands between 2020 and 2022, prompting some property owners and landlords to give the survivors as much support as possible. CBL vice president of specialty leasing Lisa Harper made a stark case for the rent support, reduction and forgiveness programs many landlords enacted during the crisis. “It was a case of doing the right thing for the right reasons,” she said. “It was a pretty easy decision since we realized: ‘We have to do this or we won’t have any tenants on the other end of this.’”

Edens CEO Jodie McLean said small business owners’ persistence will play a major role in the post-pandemic revitalization of battered retail districts. “The resiliency of these few locally owned, community-minded retailers was really amazing,” she said. “We were going crazy trying to take as many of them [across] the COVID bridge as we could.”

Often, that pragmatism paid off, said Beth Azor, a South Florida center owner and consultant. While some developers see small business tenants as risky bets, she had a different experience. “They are not risky if they do strong sales,” she said. “They’re more secure. At the start of the pandemic, we all got letters from national tenants saying they were not going to pay rent for a year. “They were risky. Meanwhile, our small business tenants were calling and crying and asking, ‘Can I give you $1,000 of the $3,000 I owe?’”

There’s a possibility of strong relationships and a sense of mutual obligation between landlords and small tenants. That’s why economic development professionals at ICSC 2022 Las Vegas are enthusiastic about filling existing vacancies and new spaces with small business tenants. Local officials from the South to the swanky California coast labeled small businesses as crucial components of their economic development strategies. Kelly Reenders, director of economic development for the city of Dana Point, an Orange County town just south of Irvine, California, said local small businesses are vital pillars of several fast-moving developments and developers are well aware of the importance of their tenant mixes. “You want the community to embrace your project, so you have to have your development reflect the community,” she said.

Center Point, Alabama Mayor Bobby Scott was in Vegas to find developers for the Birmingham suburb’s 37-acre and 26-acre parcels of city land. Sales tax revenue there rose during the pandemic, driven by commuters staying at home. That encouraged his hope that national anchor tenants will come, which would complement local entrepreneurs. “What we want to do is get a little more self-sufficient” and generate enough revenue to fund a town police force rather than contracting with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, he said.

Other economic development mavens were keen to help small businesses grow and expand. Washington DC Economic Partnership president and CEO Keith Sellars proudly mentioned that growing chains like cosmetics retailer Bluemercury and restaurants Sweetgreen and Cava all have roots as D.C. small businesses. He’s constantly seeking promising new small businesses to support, particularly in the technology, food-and-beverage and service sectors. “One thing that generates a lot of support for small businesses is being able to show how money spent at small businesses stays in the community,” he said.

Morgan Wortham, managing director of the Maryland Women’s Business Center — which has locations in Rockville and in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station — said two of her major goals are helping nascent online businesses transition to brick-and-mortar and helping fill gaps in their knowledge of how to run and grow companies. Entrepreneurs “may have their own business knowledge based on their products and services but still don’t know about [other aspects of] doing business well,” she said.

While small business owners don’t lack drive or strong work ethics, many lack experience in finding capital, using technology effectively, developing marketing and merchandising plans, negotiating local regulatory regimes and keeping their real estate costs down.

Alana Loeffler, managing director for business strategy at Cushman & Wakefield’s Americas retail services arm, said digitally native brands need to take full advantage of their own resources. “They have a lot of data at their fingertips and they know their brands better than anyone else, but they sometimes don’t know how to harness it and utilize it when they’re ready to open their stores,” she said.

Harper said landlord and government support for small businesses, particularly ones founded by Millennials and Gen Z entrepreneurs, would pay dividends by stabilizing the retail ecosystem. “These are our new business owners,” she said. “How do we meet their needs?”

By Will Swarts

Executive Editor, ICSC Small Business Center

Small Business Center

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