Lessons from Grand Rapids: MoDiv

TheMetropreneur.com visited regional neighbor Grand Rapids for the CEOS for Cities annual conference last week. While there, we checked in on three different entrepreneurial/incubator facilities and programs to find out how other cities are nurturing small business growth and innovation.

Grand Rapids is successfully answering the question that many mid-size cities have been asking themselves for decades: How can we bring more retail businesses back into our Downtowns?

Their answer: MoDiv.

Located in a flatiron-style building at the diagonal intersection of Monroe Center Street and Division Avenue (which abbreviate and combine to create the facility’s name), MoDiv is a retail incubator that houses ten microbusinesses that range in size from 300 to 750 square feet. Stores include startups selling clothing, jewelry and baked goods, as well as unique flagship concepts from national companies Wolverine and Haworth.

Since opening in January 2012, MoDiv has quickly become an anchor for the narrow retail-lined street of Monroe Center, which was once the main shopping corridor of the city of Grand Rapids.

“We had a desire to recreate something like that and see shopping return to the street,” said Mike VanGessel, Chairman & CEO of Rockford Construction, the owners of MoDiv. “We knew that what we really needed to do something contemporary — not build a major shopping complex. This would need to be small and entrepreneurial.”

VanGessel explains that creating a system where multiple small businesses can exist under one roof provides some risk mitigation as rent payments are not tied to the fate of a single larger tenant. Short term leases (six months) provide flexibility for both the businesses, several of which have already outgrown the incubator into larger spaces nearby.

“If we have other space that is available and meets their aspirations, we love to help with that, but we don’t want to control that either,” explained VanGessel. “If you put too many challenges on a startup, it can hamstring them and it takes away from the spirit of what they’re trying to accomplish. We just want to be a cool space for them at the right price.”

The development arm of Rockford Construction have vested interest in the success of Downtown Grand Rapids, with multiple redevelopment projects and partnerships in the area, as well as a new company headquarters located several blocks away on city’s west side.

“The more density you have in an urban setting, the better… apartments, retailers, offices and everything else,” says VanGessel. “We feel that these retailers provide something important for the city as a whole, which is mutually beneficial for other developers as well as our company.”

For more information, visit www.shopmodiv.com.

Photos by Walker Evans.