This small Ontario community is filling empty storefronts by giving away free retail space

Fed up with the empty storefronts peppering their community’s main drag, people in Clinton, Ont. have taken the project of downtown revitalization to a new level by offering a year’s worth of free retail space to five emerging businesses.

The five business owners were selected through the 2019 Central Huron Win this Space contest, which required them to take a training course, submit a detailed business plan and present their idea in front of a “Dragon’s Den”-style panel of judges.

All the while, the business owners thought there would only be one winner—but contest organizer Angela Smith had managed to raise enough cash to fund all five.

“There was a standing ovation from the audience [when they found out], and lots of hugs and tears,” said Smith, who is the community improvement coordinator for Central Huron.

Altogether, the rents will cost $60,000 for the year—money that was entirely raised by donations from the community. Smith said the project was ‘near and dear’ to everyone’s hearts.

“It’s been disheartening to see the downtown dwindling,” said Smith, noting that several long-time retailers have retired recently, and that new business owners in Clinton are also competing with online retail and big box stores.

“We’ve also had two major fires in our downtown in recent history, and just the sense of awakening and the fact that the municipality undertook this has really boosted the feeling of ‘We can do this, we can bring things back,'” she said.

Community wants to attract new residents

The five businesses-to-be are:

  • Mama and Me, a boutique jewellery store.
  • Clinton Footcare and Wellness.
  • Miniature Masterpieces, a learn-to-paint business.
  • Dress to Impress, a bridal shop.
  • MyTy’s, a children’s bookstore.

Smith said all the business owners have some connection to Clinton, although Crystal McMaster, owner of Mama and Me, hails from Thamesford, Ont.

“I was actually driving through this community headed to Goderich and I saw the sign [for the contest],” said McMaster. “It was just the right timing, so I decided to apply.”

Jim Ginn, mayor of Central Huron, said he hopes a bolstered downtown will encourage others to stop and stay. He said the community has been dealing with an ongoing worker shortage that’s grown so severe, some businesses can’t expand because they simply don’t have enough employees.

“So absolutely, we’re looking for people to move to the area,” Ginn said.

There is no hard deadline for the five new businesses to launch, but Smith said they hope to have their doors open in time to capitalize on the summer tourist season.

Going forward, Smith said she thinks the new businesses will help support the others, and make life better for everyone in town.

“I think it makes the whole town more vibrant and having more stores downtown supports the ones that are already there as well,” she said. “It’s a revolving door.”

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