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5 Strategies to Appeal to Small Business Tenants That Helped Double the Retail Occupancy of a Troubled Icon

November 1, 2023

With its soaring presence and stunning nighttime lighting, Tower City is an icon of the Cleveland cityscape. The mixed-use facility started as Cleveland Union Terminal and has had many identities and owners over the decades,. That includes Dan Gilbert — majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and founder of Rocket Mortgage, formerly known as Quicken Loans — who bought the mall in 2016.

By 2020, occupancy of the 360,000 square feet of retail on three levels was dramatically low and the 2022 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, which connects to Tower City via an RTA rail walkway, was approaching. The leasing efforts of Azor Advisory Services founder Beth Azor went well beyond the typical marketing of the space. She more than doubled the occupancy in less than three years, primarily to women- and minority-owned businesses.

5 Strategies She Used to Pull It Off

1. Identify the uses you want in the space.

Azor started her quest by thinking about the businesses she thought would attract a large number of customers. That included boutiques, sneaker stores, a toy store, a bridal salon and food vendors. Lunch, she learned, was a significant incentive for drawing businesspeople and residents to Tower City. “What I found is: We are the food court of downtown Cleveland,” Azor explained. So she looked at categories that didn’t yet have presences in Tower City. “I didn’t have sushi, so I was trying to get sushi. I didn’t have a high-end, sit-down Italian, so I looked for a high-end, sit-down Italian restaurant.” Once she identified her needs, “I went and talked to everyone in town that has that use and tried to get them to come here.”

2. Reach out to local entrepreneurs and small business owners.

The focus, Azor said, was not getting top dollar for the spaces or trying to find national tenants to come to downtown Cleveland. Instead, the goal was to lure beloved, local entrepreneurs to the space. She recalled: “Dan Gilbert told me, ‘Go find the best of the best and give them an opportunity. We're not going to charge them $10,000 a month. We'll charge them less. We want Cleveland to help us get our city turned around.’” Azor, known as The Canvassing Queen, door-knocked more than 2,300 people.

3. Lean on nostalgia as a selling point if applicable.

Tower City includes the old Higbee’s building, where Clevelanders who grew up in the ’80s would have gone to see the holiday decorations. Non-Clevelanders also have visited Higbee’s at Christmas, through the eyes of Ralphie Parker in the movie A Christmas Story. Azor used this nostalgia among locals as a recruiting technique. When approaching potential tenants, she’d say: “Do you know Tower City?” They’d all respond: “Yes, we used to come to Tower City. It was great. It was where we spent so many Christmases.” Azor said: “Everyone had a fond, nostalgic memory of Tower City.” She drew on that connection. She’d tell potential tenants: “Come help us rebuild it!” When they’d ask if the rent was high, Azor was able to respond with an affordable number. Two-and-a-half years of saying that to a lot of people resulted in dozens of new leases, she said.

4. Sponsor local events.

Before Azor landed in Cleveland from her base in South Florida, she subscribed to all the local and community newspapers. That’s how she learned about a local business pitch competition called Chain Reaction, described to Azor as an American Idol for mom and pop stores. Every year, dozens of local entrepreneurs compete for the chance to win tens of thousands in capital. Azor immediately saw the benefits of connecting Tower City to the competition. “I called Gilbert’s team at Bedrock, and I said: ‘We need to sponsor this event.’” She had some conditions in mind. “We’ll pay to play, but we want to meet all the applicants. We want the judging here. We want the awards here. I want to teach a class about how to find retail space, and we will give three months free [rent], six months free and a year free to the top three winners if they’re retail businesses.” Azor got the names and numbers of the 100 applicants, including the 20 finalists. “It helped jump-start my knowledge” of the Cleveland landscape, she said. Media outlets like Cleveland Magazine, Crain’s Cleveland Business and Fox 8 News covered the event — and Tower City. Two of the three winners took space in Tower City, and Azor is negotiating a deal with another finalist.

5. Invest in events and marketing.

Azor knows small businesses don’t have budgets for large-scale marketing and events. Apple Jax Toys just signed a two-year lease at Tower City, and co-owner Diana Hlywiak noted that at Apple Jax’s two other stores, in the suburbs, “we put on our own makeshift events.” This year, Tower City’s Skylight Park will include an homage to A Christmas Story. That sort of investment in marketing is what sealed the deal for Hlwyiak. Her store will be near the activation, and that’s the kind of publicity small business owners couldn’t get themselves.

Azor calls the experience of leasing Tower City the highlight of her career. “I had never gone to a city where I knew not one person. I’ve been in the South Florida market for 37 years. [In Cleveland], there were no brokers calling me saying: ‘We have tenants for you.’ I literally had to go out and find them.” What makes her even prouder is that of the businesses she has brought on board, most are Black owned, and of those, most are owned by Black women. “We’ve changed these people’s lives,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll stay and create a synergy and we’ll all work to turn Tower City around.”

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

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