After five years of running her Tennyson Street bookstore, For Heaven’s Sake owner Dianne Fresquez had an epiphany – to effectively market her store, she needed to get out from behind the counter and get involved in the community that comprises a large chunk of her customer base.

Little did she know when she co-founded the Berkeley District Merchants Association in January that she’d also be helping position the community for participation in a new city initiative aimed at boosting small businesses like hers.

On May 1, the city of Denver announced the Denver Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative, a pilot program from the Office of Economic Development aimed at strengthening neighborhood business districts and their surrounding communities and helping small businesses grow. One of the districts chosen was Berkeley/Tennyson Street.

“The timing of our Berkeley Merchants Association was one reason they picked us,” she said. “We were organized, and we really needed to have that.”

More than half the city’s general fund comes from retail sales taxes on small businesses like hers, according to the OED, and many of the retail establishments are in smaller business districts outside Denver’s downtown core.

The city chose five districts to participate in the pilot program, using a set of performance criteria that categorized each district’s current state of development as somewhere along the spectrum between challenging and thriving, said economic development administrator Bo Martinez.

The criteria were based on several factors, including property value trends, lease rates, vacancy rates, sales tax trends, private investment and private sector leadership. The goal was to get a good mix so that the districts might also help each other.

For example, Cherry Creek North has an established Business Improvement District and a thriving retail base. The district also has gone through growing pains, from parking issues to dealing with change as some long-established independents were replaced by more national chains, Martinez said. With these experiences under its belt, Cherry Creek North might prove a mentor for younger, less successful districts.

Between now and the end of the year, most of the effort will be on gathering information and neighborhood input, and creating neighborhood marketplace profiles featuring background information, demographic data, information on the mix of existing businesses and data on commercial development, Martinez said.

The city is also partnering with Social Compact, a Washington-based nonprofit that will help Denver develop a plan to be used to attract investment in neighborhood development. Finally, the city has formed a Business District Alliance to represent the city’s diverse group of small-business operators and property owners in the various districts, Martinez said.

City Council members Rick Garcia and Jeanne Robb had been pushing for such a program for about two years as a way to help small neighborhood businesses grow and thrive, Garcia said. The Denver initiative is loosely modeled on a similar initiative in Chicago, he said.

One of the initiative’s key goals is to foster and support the entrepreneurship that exists in small neighborhood business districts throughout the city, he said.

“I really believe that there has not been a focused economic development agenda,” Garcia said. “This has been one of the first examples of giving small business a leg up, and I think we finally have something we can look at and say this is a program that shows City Council is supporting small business development.”

Also as part of the initiative, the city reorganized staffers within the Office of Economic Development, assigning a point person to each council district. Each assigned staffer will become an expert on his or her district so as to better understand and address the issues each district faces, Martinez said.

The Berkeley/Tennyson Street District, which sits in Garcia’s council district, already has some success stories, Garcia said, including demographic changes to the neighborhood in recent years that have brought in higher-income residents who enjoy the ability to walk to shops and restaurants, and to participate in events like the First Friday Gallery Walk.

As the city’s initiative progresses, Fresquez said, she hopes it will result in more joint marketing promotions as well as address potential stumbling blocks to growth.

Number one on her issues list is parking, she said. She also wants the city to help during a planned street improvement project that could result in temporary drops in business. She’s more optimistic now that, with the initiative, her concerns will be addressed.

“It’s really nice to see the city come together as a single, focused organization,” she said. “They’ve made themselves available and that’s comforting. They’re meeting us on the street level and showing they care about what happens in the community. I feel like I’m the customer for a change.”

Development tools Next year, the city will ask for other districts to get involved and give them a chance to compete to be part of the program. Participating districts will have access to the following:

* Creation of special districts such as Business Improvement Districts or Community Improvement Districts

*Technical assistance (real estate, district formation, marketing) from city staff, community development corporations, other nonprofits or consultants

*Local access to Denver’s Business Support Offices and the Business Assistance Center

*A citywide Business District Alliance

*Home and Community Development Block Grant funds

*Small-business lending

*Streetscape improvements

*Work force recruitment and training

Program’s five districts

Denver’s Economic Development Office chose five neighborhood business districts in different stages of development and levels of success for the pilot program of the city’s new Denver Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative:

* Morrison Road (Morrison Road, from Knox Court to Sheridan Boulevard)

* Welton Street Corridor (Welton Street, from 20th Street to 30th Street)

* Bluebird District (Colfax Avenue, from York Street to Colorado Boulevard)

* Berkeley/Tennyson Street Corridor (Tennyson Street, from 38th Avenue to 45th Avenue)

* Cherry Creek North (district boundaries include First Avenue to Third Avenue, and University Boulevard to Steele Street)
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