4 Community Elements to Consider When Shopping for Retail Space

If you’re looking for a new retail space, you’ve certainly been thinking about location. Affordability, utilities, and zoning laws are all important factors in choosing a space. However, many retailers forget to take into account the strength of a district’s public/private partnerships.

The health of a surrounding retail district can define the success of your store. Here are four key characteristics of a thriving district to keep in mind when choosing a location:

1. Partnerships

Community buy-in is essential for retail districts during lean, as well as healthy, times. Local businesses need to build partnerships with public, private, and nonprofit organizations in their neighborhoods to inspire creative collaborations.

In 2009, during the worst of the Great Recession, for example, empty storefronts increased in Chicago’s downtown Loop district. In response, the Chicago Loop Alliance, a local business member organization, created Pop-Up Art Loop, connecting property owners with local artists. The project included more than 30 vacant spaces in the Loop and engaged hundreds of artists.

Even today, with fewer vacant spaces, Pop-Up Art Loop attracts international partnerships, distinguished artists, and record-breaking crowds during summer gallery walks. Loop merchants who were committed to their district turned an economic downturn into a positive and community-strengthening economic development event.

2. A High-Performing Street

The more at ease your customers feel, the more likely they are to come to your store again and again. A high-performing street puts visitors’ comfort, safety, and convenience first. Its stores are open evenings and weekends, its restaurants stay open late, and its open spaces attract people who rest and linger. Police presence, easy-to-access public and personal transportation, and working streetlights make people feel safe during the day and at night. Visitor information is accessible and easy for tourists to understand.

For a great example of a high-performing retail district, check out this profile of the Sullivan Center.

3. Active Placemakers

When you work to create a place where people want to visit, linger, and enjoy themselves, everybody wins. Placemaking requires private and public cooperation for the creation of spaces that drive civic engagement, reflect beauty, and grow social capital.

Private sponsorship can often create and maintain projects that would otherwise not be possible. It can also generate goodwill, public identification with your brand, and positive public relations. However, if you’re entering a neighborhood without a history with such projects, you might find yourself in an uphill battle, trying to get community leaders on board in addition to growing your business.

4. Opportunities for Involvement

A great retail district isn’t just a place where business owners benefit — it’s also a place where business owners can benefit others. Consider becoming a local expert and giving back to your community in one or more of these ways:

  • Sponsor a sports team
  • Create a scholarship
  • Be a guest speaker at local events
  • Start a podcast or blog about your neighborhood
  • Conduct a free how-to session in your neighborhood

Find a community where people are already creating these sorts of experiences. You don’t always have to start from scratch. Joining or improving upon someone else’s idea is a great way to give back and network at the same time.

Ultimately, you want to get the public on board with the success of your retail store. You don’t want to be labeled an outsider. By connecting your business to a cause outside your four walls, you’re joining business success with community success. People who want to see their neighborhood succeed will recognize you as an ally and be more likely to support your business.

When looking for a retail space, it can be tempting to settle for the first space you can afford with decent foot traffic. But if you take the time to consider the quality of the neighborhood and the comfort of your customers, you won’t just get a storefront — you’ll gain a sense of community that will make people flock to your door.


Michael Edwards is the Executive Director for Chicago Loop Alliance, a business organization that represents Chicago’s most dynamic mixed-use district, the Chicago Loop. Chicago Loop Alliance creates, manages, and promotes high-performing urban experiences, attracting people and investment to the Loop. The Loop area boasts some of the nation’s favorite attractions, a rising residential population, and the second largest commercial district in the United States. In addition, 21 higher education institutions and multiple modes of public transportation make the Loop area a vibrant global business center and a world-class downtown destination.


Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Chicago Loop Alliance. 


  • Ellen Divita
    April 28, 2014

    Excellent article. Especially the suggestion to not just take the first place that is affordable! There are so many other factors including co-tenancy with your neighbors – do neighboring businesses share the hours you wish to operate and are their customers potential customers of yours? Will you be able to cross refer and cross promote? Partnerships are powerful.

    Another key factor is size – is the space too large or too small. Here in Geneva, Illinois we maintain a database of available properties to help our potential new businesses identify their next location, and to help existing businesses “right-size.” Geneva is a county seat suburban market 40 miles west of Chicago, so we’re not the Chicago Loop, but we have a thriving downtown. We have seen many of our small businesses run solo for a few years and then move into shared space. This new business model has worked well – the shops are run collaboratively as if one store, but each “department” is actually a separate vendor.

    Geneva is glad to be a Retail Minded partner. Thanks for all the knowledge you share with our independent business owners!

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