Turn an empty lot into a market village with sheds

Tionesta, Pennsylvania, picopolitan: population 300, had a big empty lot that they tried for years to get a developer to rebuild. Finally, they gave up on that and bought some garden sheds or storage sheds. They got a local carpenter to add false fronts to coordinate with their remaining downtown buildings, so they are really attractive. Then they opened it up for local businesses and entrepreneurs. It’s a kind of retail business incubator.

They’ve seen local artisans expand into new locations, they’ve attracted branch businesses from out of town, and they have locals who this is just big enough for. And in terms of your local economy, that’s a lot better than just an empty lot waiting for a developer! 

From empty lot to bustling commercial center! Photos via Forest County Business Alliance and Becky McCray

Tiny houses into tiny shops

Pascagoula, Mississippi, micropolitan: population 26,000, has a similar project called Anchor Square. They took a dirty old empty lot, and added tiny houses connected by a deck.

Businesses rent the small spaces, try out their products, learn about the market, and maybe even graduate to a full size business later. This mini shopping experience doesn’t just serve locals, it also draws visitors in to boost the economy. 

Photo by Rebecca Broyles
Via Anchor Square Facebook page

Other tiny building options

Big cities like Cleveland, Tulsa and Las Vegas have used shipping containers and created new entertainment, food and shopping areas on empty lots. We don’t care whether you use sheds, or shipping containers, or just card tables, as long as you get something going on those empty lots! 

Container Park, Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Deb Brown
Courtyard at the Boxyard, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo by Becky McCray

Tip: Fill in the block line

We’ve seen several of these little retail spaces, and there’s a pretty common mistake we want you to avoid. Don’t turn your back on the street.

Carlos Moreno pointed out: Don’t turn your back on the street like the Boxyard in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo by Becky McCray.

When you’re filling in an empty block with vendors, pop ups or food trucks – line them up right on the block line by the sidewalk with the doors facing to the street. You’ll give the feeling of replacing the missing downtown buildings. 

You can add an inner courtyard space to encourage people to shop, and go sit down and linger. Just leave a space in between two of the buildings to create an opening. But don’t turn the whole thing to face the courtyard and turn your back on the street. Make sure you face the street!

Start with temporary shed businesses:

Borrow the sheds!

You don’t have to start by spending all the money to buy empty lots, clean them up, buy sheds, fix them up, and landscape. You can start with temporary pop-ups, maybe even borrowing sheds! Once you have some success with vendors doing business on your lot, then you can progress to temporary buildings. 

When Deb Brown and I spoke at the RuralX Summit, one of the ideas we mentioned was the tiny business village, where businesses pop up inside of storage sheds in Tionesta, Pennsylvania.

Dylan Fulton and Camden Breitling, high school students from Miller, South Dakota, heard that idea and ran with it. Together with some supportive adults including Tammy Caffee, they planned and held an event called Cozy Cabin Christmas.

They convinced a storage shed retailer to play host to four temporary businesses during their community’s month-long Christmas on the Prairie celebration. The businesses were:

  • a photo booth
  • local-themed vintage t-shirts and license plates
  • holiday baked goods
  • Asian food

Tammy Caffee shared these photos of the first event.

The Idea Friendly Method

A great implementation of the Innovative Rural Business Models, these pop-up businesses are Tiny, Temporary, and Together. They are small and short term, so more people can try them, and they all benefit from being in the same location.

This projects also includes all 3 Idea Friendly elements:

  • Take Small Steps – a quick small project that you can test immediately is better than any number of grand plans that never happen
  • Gather Your Crowd – it served as a public declaration of the kind of town they want to become
  • Build Connections – they connected to the existing holiday event, connected the businesses to each other, and connected the community with new potential businesses

I’m sure a lot of conversations happened around the fire ring, too, building a sense of community.

Where could you put a few sheds in your town?