Explore some of the first-floor units of Downtown Storage in Huntsville, AL, and you won’t find bags of old clothes, carefully packed cardboard boxes or even haphazard piles of forgotten junk. Instead, you’ll find ambitious entrepreneurs selling everything from designer clothing and woodworking tools to artwork and goat cheese—all from 10×10 storage units.
The retailers are participants in the Clinton Row Project, an initiative launched by Downtown Huntsville Inc., which promotes economic development. With more than 180,000 residents, Huntsville is Alabama’s fourth largest city. The project, an incubator for new retailers, seeks to draw entrepreneurs to the once-thriving downtown shopping district.
The storage facility occupies a corner at the major downtown intersection of Jefferson Street and Clinton Avenue. Chad Emerson, CEO of Downtown Huntsville, said he thought the facility’s first-floor space could serve a better purpose than housing stored items.
“On the street, it was a dead experience,” Emerson said. “We thought, ‘What if we took out the storage and put in retail grids?’”
Located behind large bay units, several first-floor units at the facility face the street. The building, constructed in 1916, once was a major furniture store before it was converted into a self-storage facility 15 years ago.
“We got with the building owner,” Emerson said, “and it worked out perfectly.”
Emerson’s group rents eight units from the facility for $200 a month, and then subleases the space to retail tenants for $100 a month. Redstone Federal Credit Union helps cover the difference, Emerson said. The tenants agree to a one-year commitment, which Emerson said is enough time to determine whether a retailer has a viable business.
Interested retailers had to have their business plans reviewed by a local business school before being accepted into the incubator.
“We wanted to find businesses that were a good mix and had a thought-out business plan,” Emerson said, “After 12 months, they have the option to find a permanent location, and then hopefully we’ll have a new class come in.”
Emerson said the incubator now has a waiting list of more than 40 entrepreneurs.
The first class of entrepreneurs already has started doing business there; a grand opening event is set for April. A “soft” opening took place during the recent Mardi Gras parade sponsored by Downtown Huntsville.
“It was huge,” Emerson said. “Everyone had great sales on the first day.”
Current retailers include several art galleries and a clothing boutique. Coming soon is a shop operated by Belle Chevre, a producer of gourmet goat cheese.
Facility owner David Johnston loves the buzz generated by the Clinton Row Project. He remembers when the retail district was once flourishing, but like many such urban areas across the country, it declined as suburbanization drew shoppers away from downtown.
Johnston is excited to be part of downtown Huntsville’s renaissance.
“The units face what used to be the busiest street downtown. I was here when it was active,” Johnston said.
When Emerson approached him with the incubator concept, Johnston was convinced almost right away.
“When [Emerson] came, I just visualized how it used to be,” Johnston said of the bustling days of downtown Huntsville. “Suddenly, now you have retail units for these young, small entrepreneurs to get their slice of a new life.”
Johnston bought the building 15 years ago and transformed it into a self-storage facility in partnership with regional operator Tellus Self Storage. Johnston said he bought out Tellus’ share of the business last summer.
Johnston said he make minor tweaks to the facility to prepare for the retail incubator, such as adding a separate entrance. While Johnston said he participated mostly to aid the growth of downtown Huntsville, he said his business has experienced a small boost in traffic. Some of the retailers have rented units to store inventory, and overall occupancy has risen.
“We’re in the 95 percent range, so it’s not like we had to have it to survive, but I think it has picked up,” Johnston said.
Bottom two photos courtesy of Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County