Several years ago, Red Wing was dealing with a vacancy problem. About one-tenth of the small town’s storefronts—which held both restaurant and retail in the past—were chronically empty, says Tracy Hardyman, a board member at Red Wing Downtown Main Street, a nonprofit promoting business and community development. According to geographic data company ESRI, the town had the potential to support an estimated $30.5 million in restaurant sales annually; however, it was managing less than two-thirds of that.
To address the issue, members of Downtown Main Street locked down grants from the local Housing and Redevelopment Authority, the Port Authority and area foundations and, in 2014, launched the Red Wing Restaurant Challenge. The contest took a Shark Tank approach, where a winner received a retail lease at a discounted rate and up to $40,000 worth of incentives—largely in-kind services and money for capital improvements. Ultimately four finalists faced off before a panel of community leaders for the prize. In the end, Danielle and John Flicek were victorious and moved from Rochester to Red Wing, to reopen the Staghead in its former space.
The contest brought unanticipated benefits: “One of the applicants did end up opening a restaurant two doors down from the Staghead—Oliver’s Wine Bar,” says Anthony Nemcek, a Downtown Main Street board member. “The contest—even though they didn’t win—was a good exercise for them to get a business plan together.” Both restaurants remain open today, along with an independent coffee shop, which Nemcek says was able to open because it “leaned on the owners of the Staghead and Oliver’s to get feedback on what worked and didn’t” in town.
Two years later, in March 2016, Downtown Main Street reintroduced the competition, this time with a retail focus. Eight applied and three won: an outdoors shop, a comic book store and a mercantile shop. Once again, a runner-up, Backwoods Framing and Engraving, ended up opening. “We’re going to keep doing these,” Hardyman says. “We literally have to in order to spark interest, create visibility and get more economic development downtown.”
Next on the docket is new signage and other branding fix-ups for several downtown businesses similar to what Deluxe Corp. was offering the winner of its Small Business Revolution contest. —Sam Schaust