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Program provides free rent to businesses that start in vacant storefronts

The Downtown Denver Partnership filled five vacant spots in upper downtown through the Pop-Up Denver program. They recently received funding to fill 10 more.

DENVER — Starting a brick and mortar business wasn't always in the cards for Taelor O'Dorisio. 

“Yeah, it was definitely a leap of faith and something completely different," she said.

The entrepreneur started in April of 2020, when e-commerce was one of the only ways people would buy products, like her tea, during the pandemic. 

“It’s been quite a journey, but it’s been really fun," she said.

In any case, O'Dorisio was able to open her first and only physical location of Tea with Tae in June of this year. 

A big part of why she was able to, has to do with a program from the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) called Pop-Up Denver. 

The program looks to tackle the issue of vacant storefronts that have sat unused. 

"We wanted to address the potential economic impacts of COVID on downtown, to also think about the changing nature of retail," said Sarah Wiebenson, the Director of Economic Development for the Downtown Denver Partnership. "Seeing it as a time to refresh downtown, re-imagine downtown, and give people a reason to come back to the office, explore Denver."

Credit: Alex Castillo
The Tea with Tae storefront on the 16th Street Mall.

The pilot program specifically tackled the area of Upper Downtown, most notably the 16th Street Mall, where O'Dorisio's cafe now sits. 

Wiebenson explained that when a business or entity is approved for the program, DDP works with property managers of the vacant spots to make sure that the license agreements offer a minimum of three months of free rent. Business operators still cover other costs, like utilities.

Wiebenson said applicants reported it took usually about three months to build a customer base. 

Partnering with the City of Denver Department of Economic Development and Opportunity (DEDO), businesses were each awarded with a $20,000 package in interior design, setup, and merchandising support, in addition to discounted rent. 

The program launched in February of this year, receiving more than 150 applicants. 

"It gives them some skin in the game, gives them some motivation to to bring in those customers and start generating that revenue," Wiebenson said. 

Credit: Alex Castillo
16th Street Mall in Denver.

For O'Dorisio, she won't have to start paying rent until next February. After that, she hopes to sign a longer-term lease. 

“It makes coming down here to have your own pop-up obviously very approachable and affordable for businesses who probably weren’t thinking it about it beforehand," she said. “There needs to be more small businesses like this that are established and can stay on the mall."

A museum, art gallery and more were also selected for businesses this time. 

DDP recently received enough funding to fill 10 more long-vacant spots, likely keeping their focus in upper downtown. They hope to start the process for the next batch in 2023. 

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