Opportunity at Your Doorstep:

Business Recruitment


As downtown managers, business recruitment is something we do every day. We take the time to review the business mix, see what's missing, and identify prospective businesses that would be a good fit. After exhaustive research, we make the in-person visit to pitch why our downtown is the best place for the owner to open his or her next location. It's a great system and has been proven to yield results time after time.

But what happens when they knock on your door? Small business owners are a fairly industrious bunch and certainly aren’t going to wait for someone to come to them. So here they are, standing on your doorstep. Now what? It’s tempting to ask them to make an appointment for a later date so you can do your due diligence and be better prepared. But do you really send away someone who wants to invest in your downtown? In my experience, some of the best business pitches I’ve heard have come during a drop-in visit, so I always make time to talk to them. Prepared or not, the trick is to ask the right questions.

Does the owner have a business plan? We’ve all been conditioned to believe that if they don’t have a business plan we should turn them away until they come back with one. Nice idea, but not very realistic, as 80 percent of the business owners who walk through my door don’t have one. Small business owners are like snowflakes, no two are alike and trying to get them to fit into a particular mold is a futile effort. Listen to their concept, and if you think it has potential, work with them. Send them to talk to people who can help them refine their plan. If they come up with one, great, but never reject a business solely on the lack of a business plan.

What kind of products are they going to sell? This will help you identify any existing competition downtown, plus it will give you some idea how they plan to cover the rent. If they are looking at a space that rents for $2,500 per month but are planning on selling only $3.00 widgets, well, you’ve got a problem.

Why do they want to open a store in your downtown? They came to you, so they must have a reason. Find out what research they’ve done and why your downtown is attractive to them. In addition to gathering more information, you’ll also gain some great material to use in future business recruitment efforts.

Do they have a marketing plan? Often times, owners of small businesses have a “Field of Dreams” (if you build it, they will come) marketing strategy. They believe that they will be successful because they’re offering a fantastic product in a prime location so no advertising or marketing will be necessary. Uh, no. This is your chance to showcase the marketing opportunities your organization provides, but be careful to position your organization as the icing on the cake, not the default marketing department for local businesses.

What are the red flags? After doing this for a while, I have become adept at sizing up business owners in the first five minutes by asking some key questions:

Q. What kind of business would you like to open?
A. I don’t know, what do you think downtown needs?

Q. How much space are you looking for?
A. Somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 square feet.

Q. Why do you want to open a business?
A. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Q. Do you have a business plan?
A. I have it all up here (points to head and smiles).

Is that little voice in your head shouting “Danger, Danger, Will Robinson”? Well, it should be. If you have concerns, let them know. That feedback could send them back to the drawing board to refine their concept.

What tools should you have at your fingertips?

  • Available lease space list with contacts;
  • Market research/trade area demographics;
  • Information about your organization;
  • Information about available grants;
  • Marketing materials (i.e. downtown brochure, business directory, etc.); and
  • Merchant meeting schedule.

You don’t want to inundate prospects with an unnecessary amount of paper, but send them away with some reading material so they will keep thinking about your downtown long after this meeting.

The greatest advantage you have, based on the fact that they came to you, is that they may already be sold on your downtown. This is your opportunity to seal the deal. Don’t give them information they can easily find on your website. Tell them your story. Tell them about your customers, your businesses, and how your organization is the glue that holds downtown together. Most importantly, show them what your downtown can offer their business to help them succeed?

Above all, be honest. If your current vacancy rate is high, it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s more important to fill the spaces than to consider the quality of the tenants. Unfortunately, this strategy will lead to a revolving door of businesses entering and exiting your downtown, which will do nothing to build your reputation as a viable place to do business. If you don’t think there is a market for their business in your downtown or if you believe that your market is already saturated with similar businesses, tell them. They might still choose to move forward, but at least you’ve given them key information to consider and make an educated decision.

So how do you close the meeting? Tell them to talk to the business owners in your district. You can (and should) be the best salesperson for your downtown, but there’s a lot of value to be found in peer-to-peer contact. Don’t steer potential recruits toward the business owners who you know will say the right things. If you are confident in your program and its credibility with your merchants, you should have no reservations about sending a new business prospect out to talk to anyone.

Business recruitment is an ongoing process that is an integral part of any downtown revitalization program. While it is important to develop an overall recruitment strategy, you need to be flexible. Don’t hesitate because you want to be more prepared. Open the door—you might be surprised about the opportunities waiting on the other side.

For more great Main Street advice, check out Kristi's blog, "The Downtown Geek," and keep an eye out for her column "From the Front Line" in the next issue of Main Street Now.