Birmingham Brothers Create a Template for Neighborhood Revitalization

Two entrepreneurs and brothers take urban development matters into their own hands. The result? Lured by a contest offering free rent, and the associated buzz, Birmingham's South Avondale finds itself in the midst of a cultural renaissance.

"'White flight', population loss, and the closing of industrial businesses that manufactured goods such as cotton and bricks" writes Matt Stroud, all contributed to the demise of South Avondale, "[o]nce a small, thriving cultural district on the border of affluent sections of [Birmingham's] Southside."

Brothers Coby and Hunter Lake, however, capitalized on a combination of local policy changes and availability of federal stimulus money for "shovel ready" projects, by investing in real estate along South Avondale's main drag and building a brewery there, reports Stroud. They didn't stop there, however, in an effort to develop the neighborhood and attract more businesses, they also created a contest to give one new business owner six months of free rent in one of their vacant, ground level storefronts.

With the help of Main Street Birmingham, a public-private urban redevelopment organization that partners with the city, the brother's launched the, "Occupy Avondale" contest, which received 75 applications. The winner was Freshfully, "a grocery store designed for local farmers to sell their food and goods" and "additional businesses have since gravitated to South Avondale", writes Stroud.

This urban revitalization maneuver apparently worked for South Avondale in Birmingham, and to varying degrees in places like Cleveland, an Indiana town called Lawrenceburg, and Buffalo. "For some businesses, especially when they're starved for cash, six months of free rent is great," says Robert Simons, an urban studies professor at Cleveland State University specializing in real estate development and public economics, "It can make all the difference."

"South Avondale had plenty of help from the federal stimulus," writes Stroud, "along with help from a new set of alcohol laws," but the Lake brothers were able to create the buzz and critical mass needed to sustain their business investment in the long run.

Full Story: Is Free Rent Enough to Jumpstart a Sleepy Commercial District?

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