CLEVELAND - In the old Slovenian neighborhood of Cleveland, empty buildings with pedigree hunker down in patient silence, as if waiting for the good times to roll again on St. Clair Avenue.
You can almost hear the shuttered Croatian Bookstore at East 64th Street whispering "shhh" to the nearby Slovenian National Home, where the dance floor still thrums to polka parties but where most of the storefronts -- like much of the block -- stand empty and still.
Neighborhood planners hope a bold business strategy infuses new vigor into a ghostly shopping district and rather quickly. Like, all at once.
The St. Clair Superior Development Corp., working with the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, will take a crack at creating a popup neighborhood with permanence. Offering merchants free rent and other enticements, the partners plan to welcome 10 businesses simultaneously next month on a two-block stretch of St. Clair and let capitalism work its magic.
One or two or three popular shops, they believe, could spark the kind of interest that creates foot traffic, supports neighboring businesses, and brings the bustle back to a storied streetscape.
The strategy pushes the popup retail concept to new lengths in Greater Cleveland and Gerri Hopkins, for one, is both skeptical and achingly hopeful.
Hopkins, the business manager of the landmark Slovenian National Home, grew up in what was once the largest Slovenian enclave in North America. Her brother runs Smrekar Hardware, not far from their childhood home where her parents still live.
"So we're attached to the neighborhood," Hopkins said. "It's sad it's not what it used to be."
Still, if the patina faded, the foundation endured, she and others say. The broad expanse of St. Clair runs past century-old brick buildings built to last. A scattering of businesses offer anchors of a shopping nexus. There's a drug store, a Charter One bank branch, a tailor and an Ethiopian restaurant within sight of the twin spires of well-kept St. Vitus Catholic Church.
"There's so much potential here," says Hopkins, daring to dream. "Where else can you live in sight of downtown, near the lake, and buy a house for $20,000? I think what they're doing is a terrific idea."
She's not letting her hopes soar too high. The surrounding neighborhood is largely poor and black with only traces of old Slovenia remaining. Smaller efforts to jumpstart businesses have flopped.
Still, no one ever tried anything like this before.
The St. Clair Superior Development Corp., a non-profit agency with access to federal block grant funds, calls its program "Retail Ready." It's offering six months free rent, storefront renovations and business training to merchants deemed ready to take the plunge.
In contrast to the popular popup concept, where empty retail spaces are filled with temporary, often seasonal shops and exhibits, these businesses are meant to last.
The program also expands upon an emerging rent-waiver strategy. While development corporations in Tremont, Ohio City and the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhoods are waving free and reduced rents to attract a retailer or two, the St. Clair project represents the most sweeping effort yet.
Working with landlords who have little to lose, the partners say they have secured spaces for 10 new businesses. Three of the storefronts were donated by the Slovenian National Home.
"The goal is to stitch them all together into one central business district," said Michael Fleming, the executive director of the development corporation. "If we can move 10 businesses in all at the same time, then you have this instant neighborhood. Then you have a big draw."
Fleming, the former planning director for Midtown Cleveland, came to his new job in April and quickly made a splash. It was his idea to graze sheep on vacant acreage, part of an effort to introduce low-cost, eco-friendly mowing to the urban scene.
He read of a popup retail district in Oakland, Calif., called Popuphood, and thought of St. Clair and its beckoning storefronts.
He also found a partner who lends the idea a better chance of success.
Fleming, the designer of St. Clair's popup strategy, also brought the sheep to the vacant field. The Urban Shepherds program is designed to introduce low-cost, eco-friendly mowing to a city rife with vacant land.
Donna Dabbs said she has long driven through the St. Clair shopping district and pondered its potential. Factories to the north employ thousands of workers. Homes to the south house residents from a rainbow of cultures, including African American, Puerto Rican, Slovenian and Croatian.
As director of the Small Business Development Center at the Urban League, Dabbs knows people who would love to make them all customers.
"This is so exciting, because when you're talking about a small business, they often have a good idea" but no place to try it out, she said. "They need some retail space, to sort of kick the tires."
Dabbs is steering some of her most promising clients to St. Clair. They include