Vibrant Spaces in Norfolk



vi·brant/ˈvībrənt/adjective  1. full of energy and enthusiasm, e.g. “a vibrant cosmopolitan city”

Space/(spās)/ noun  1. a continuous area or expanse that is available or unoccupied.

Like people, cities and urban neighborhoods have their own personalities, style, substance, values and, often, a certain je ne sais quoi. New and existing “street level” businesses in need of space/capital to upgrade—who can put the “sias” in “ne sais quoi” by proving their vibrancy—will earn the chance of a lifetime this month.

Beginning last November, Vibrant Spaces grew out of a “stakeholder collaboration” between the Downtown Norfolk Council, the City of Norfolk and other philanthropic business and community leaders with public input. Based on a successful model Drew Ungvarsky—founder of international award-winning Grow—developed for storefront space his company owned but didn’t need (home of Field Guide—read more on them here), the initiative is essentially an innovative approach to economic development. 

The Vibrant Spaces committee, chaired by Ungvarsky, said to applicants, “Match our vision and we’ll match yours.” And it delivers on that promise through a catalyst program that offers $20,000 grants plus 50 percent reductions in rent for two years to six new businesses in six vacant storefronts. For existing businesses desiring to enhance their vibe, another $60,000 in matching grants for 50 percent of project costs, up to $10,000 per business, was made available.

vibrant spaces downtown norfolk

When the organizers put their heads together to describe what kind of distinctive street-level business neighbors they desire—though they left much of that indefinable appeal of urban neighborhoods undefined—they were clear about four tenets. These businesses should:  1) embrace new—perhaps hybrid and collaborative—ideas, 2) be visually striking and always ready for their “close-ups,” 3) blur the lines between business and street and, similarly, 4) activate the sidewalk around their indoor spaces.

If that sounds like a tall order for a ground-level business, the organizers could scarcely have made their website easier to navigate, the online application more straightforward and streamlined, nor the pay-off more enticing, providing lots of visual inspiration and evidence of current momentum or, as Ungvarsky notes, “a real swell around the energy of doing business in Norfolk.” 

An open house to showcase the properties drew more than 30 potential businesses to several of the locations indicating that one inspired committee with a clearly defined mission, six diverse downtown properties, and five forward-thinking landlords adds up to far more than the sum of its parts.  Plus, taking their role as “matchmakers” seriously, the committee looks forward not only to welcoming—and supporting—their newest neighbors but to finding ideal matches between “runners up” and additional storefront inventory in the weeks and months ahead.  

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