Huge vacant buildings: subsidies to renovate?


A large empty building with an industrial appearance

Tall old factory buildings can be intimidating to revitalize. Should you start with grants? Make a presentation to the leaders of economic development? The Idea Friendly method can help. Photo of Deb Brown

The empty factory building

A reader wrote to ask to convert and divide a huge old building. Because my answer is not quite what the reader asked, I deleted the details. It could also be your city, right?

I love your articles on transforming vacant buildings into small stores and creating a commercial space to revitalize small towns. Honestly, I have long thought that something like this would do well in my small town. There was once a manufacturing plant that had been closed for years. The building is huge, but it is slowly falling apart because it has remained empty.

I think it would make a wonderful shopping district if it were divided into small stores. Not only that, but there is a large covered area that would make a large covered farmer's market.

However, we live in a small rural town where most of our city office officials as well as the economic development authority don't really think outside the box. I would like to present this idea to them; however, I don’t think they’ll be receptive if I don’t have information like potential grants or expert advice.

So my question is:

1) Can you give me some ideas on where to look for grants for the restoration of vacant buildings?

2) Can you give me examples of other cities that have offered incentives to potential companies to fill in the gaps? and

3) If the first two options are not convincing enough, would you be willing to come and make a presentation to the economic development association and the mayor?

Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated. I would really love to help our city become a better version of itself for my children to grow up.

Where not to start

Unless the city or the economic development group owns the building, I wouldn't involve them at least at first. And I wouldn't be looking for funding, at least at the start.

You have to change your whole state of mind. Instead of starting with public servants, you start with ordinary people. Instead of starting with plans to convert the whole building and where to find grants and how to use incentives and everything, start a lot smaller.

How to start smaller and build momentum

Organize a picnic with friends and other dreamers (and perhaps the most open minded officials) somewhere near the building and dream big! But start really small. Start by talking about the potential and find other interested people. Maybe you skip some of these articles on converting empty buildings that inspired you. Talk about these inspiring examples.

Remember to organize a visit with others (maybe even officials) who might be interested and discuss the full potential where you can see it.

As you pointed out, the officials will be really hard to convince if you start their meeting on their own turf and on their terms. It's hard to think of the positive potential when you're in a meeting room during a formal meeting with lots of rules and a hundred other things on the agenda. So change the whole game by becoming much smaller, much more temporary, in location and much more on building a bottom plank.

Make it your first "big" goal to borrow the building for a temporary one-day pop-up event, perhaps in this large, covered area. This will help you prove the potential and attract even more excited people.

Where to find grants

When you involve more and more people, you gather your crowd, which is part of the idea-friendly method. With more and more people, you get more and more connections with different people and with the resources you are looking for. Different people know different things and come up with different ideas. This is why you want to include very diverse people in your network.

You will network together to find grants. And you will work to convince the officials together. And together, you will brainstorm alternatives that you would never have imagined yourself. It’s the perfect way to start revitalizing this huge factory building.

Deb Brown and I learn a lot more about this user-friendly method to rebuild your local economy in our new video on SaveYour.Town titled Rebuilding Your Local Economy.

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About Becky McCray

Becky launched Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share stories and ideas about rural trade and community development with other small town business people. She and her husband have a small cattle ranch and are lifelong entrepreneurs. Becky is an international speaker on small business and rural topics.

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