Win this space has become just filled spaces

Daniel Caudle

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Recently Central Huron passed the half-way point between the opening of the seven winners from the win this space contest and the deadline in which their free rent expires.

Although the seven businesses had staggered openings ranging from mid-June to late August, most began their rent-free year on July 1.

The trials and tribulations of opening a new business can deter even the most business-savvy person, but the allure of free rent can bring anyone into contention to open their business.

The latter half of summer and into autumn were filled with eagerness as the community came together to save the downtown core which had suffered from numerous setbacks over the last decade.

From the closure of long-standing stores to frequent occurrences of fires, one of which was reported by the London Free Press in March of 2017 as ‘Weekend blaze in Clinton adds another hole to struggling downtown,’ Clinton’s economic prosperity has suffered.

In February 2019 a simple project – which later became extensive – was launched as Central Huron held its first win this space contest.

Spearheaded by Angela Smith, Central Huron’s community improvement co-ordinator, the project evolved into one that enveloped much of the town through the reclamation of deteriorating buildings.

As with most of the community, I was excited about the prospect of a fully developed downtown. It was envisioned as a downtown where the dilapidated signage of closed businesses would be replaced by vibrant go-getters who would redevelop the local economy.

As the initial excitement has worn off, it now seems there is a growing number of people questioning the sustainability of the rejuvenation project.

I began to notice a decline in hours these new businesses were staying open in late November, from an initial six days a week for some to now four days.

Over the Christmas period there began to be a renewed excitement in the town as warms lights and Christmas decorations ushered those out of the cold and into the stores.

Now, as the holidays are over, the limited hours are once again a glaring reminder that you can give someone business training and free rent for a year, but you can’t make them keep their stores open.

As the grand prize winner, Crystal McMaster and her store Mama & Me was given 12 months free rent. That’s worth $9,000. according to the formal Win This Space report curated by Smith.

In a recent post on McMasters’ official business Instagram page, she announced her store would open in February on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays for six hours per day.

That means that every week she is opened for 18 hours, or 72 hours a month, and her free monthly rent at $750 her hourly rate of operation cost of $10.41 per hour.

This leaves me questioning if there was a proper vetting process these business owners even went before we handed them keys.

I wonder why at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday when I drive through the town there are only four of the seven businesses that are even open.

Through my weekly interactions with community members from every walk of life, it appears that there are a growing number of people who would have preferred to see funds allocated over a period of time so each business could benefit from the assistance required.

During a December Central Huron council meeting Coun. Alex Westerhout tabled the idea that the municipality should implement minimum hours these seven stores should remain open in a given week.

To me, this is an excellent idea that seemed to have fizzled out before it could get any real traction.

The community pays their rent and there should have been a clause stating they must open their stores at least 40 hours a week.

While there is no correct answer, there is a general sentiment that entrepreneurs starting a new business should be putting in well over 40 hours a week and working six days a week.

The idea of a Win This Space is not new. It has been done across Ontario, with origins traced back to the Uxbridge Business Improvement Association who launched the project in 2014.

Uxbridge’s program won an award at the Ontario BIA Achievement Awards (OBIAA) Conference in 2014 in the category of Business Retention and Expansion for this very idea.

With mere months to go before the free rent initiative ends the businesses must receive further support, unless we see a mass exodus and are back to empty storefronts.

Correction: An earlier version listed the hourly cost calculates for a week. It has been changed from $41 per hour to $10.41.

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