The shift in American consumerism toward preferring experiences rather than products or things has weighed on Centennial city officials’ minds over the past few years, and the city is pushing forward with another round of its program to help local businesses adapt.
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It’s more than just an effort to lend a hand to local shops — local governments depend on sales-tax revenue, and when the economy changes, cities find themselves hoping businesses can keep up.
The Spark Centennial Experience Accelerator program provides mentorship and funding to “inspire business owners and entrepreneurs to reshape their business value by building meaningful customer connections through for-sale experiences,” the city said in a news release.
City officials kicked off the Spark Centennial program in 2019 to fund pop-up, or temporary, events. The program intended to bring the community together and call attention to shopping centers in the city, some of which have struggled with closed grocery stores and other shuttered retail shops.
“We heard from business owners that participated in Spark that they could use more support developing these unique ideas, which led us to explore the Experience Accelerator model,” Allison Wittern, city spokesperson, said this month.
The Spark Centennial Experience Accelerator program started in 2021, with five businesses completing the program. One of those was Bridget’s Botanicals, a local business that offers herbal and plant products focused on health and well-being.
Bridget Molloy, the business’s founder, used her Spark Centennial funding to develop a mobile cart that allowed her to bring products and educational classes to public events to reach new audiences.
“I really feel like it allows me to have an element of surprise and curiosity,” said Molloy, a 35-year-old west Centennial resident.
The change added an “exploratory element” for kids and adults alike to interact with the products, Molloy said.
It encouraged “connecting with plants through health and eventually using our products,” Molloy said. “So that’s kind of the newer philosophy that blossomed out of Spark.”
The city has spent tens of thousands of dollars on the program so far, starting with public events.
In 2019, the city offered small grants to business owners who had ideas to bring more activity to public spaces in their shopping centers, Wittern said.
In total, about $16,000 in grants went to local businesses to fund four events: a crawfish boil and concert at Rolling Smoke BBQ, a video game tournament, a shopping center’s 10th anniversary celebration, and an “interactive video game where your movements are the controller,” Wittern said.
“The city’s funding leveraged an additional $30,000 in private funding, and these events helped attract nearly 42,000 people to Centennial’s shopping centers,” Wittern added.
Spark Centennial also supported some artsy public experiences. In a vacant storefront in west Centennial, an unusual sight popped up in December 2020: A flashy display with changing lights and a voice recording of instructions on repeat. It occupied the front of the former Petco building near University Boulevard and Dry Creek Road throughout the month.
The display was part of an interactive smartphone-based puzzle called “With My Gnomies” that sent participants on a hunt to visit or learn more about nearby businesses, such as Rolling Smoke BBQ, Cakeheads Bakery and Professionally Faded Barbershop.
Last fall, artists and entrepreneurs Frankie Toan and Therin Zimmerman presented a pop-up roller-skating event at Centennial Center Park that combined art, roller skating, park amenities and the community, according to Wittern.
“The event was sold out and helped Toan and Zimmerman further develop their concept for a business concept called Rainbow Dome,” Wittern said.
The artists’ long-term goal is to open a permanent rink space “where art and skating coexist,” Rainbow Dome’s website says.
In 2020, the city pivoted its resources to deploying federal CARES Act funding to local businesses in response to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Wittern said. Amid the pandemic, Spark Centennial resumed late in 2020 and ultimately was rolled into the 2021 program.
In total, $70,300 went toward the 2020-2021 Spark Centennial program to deploy a year-long “incubator” program offering one-on-one technical assistance and mentorship for business owners, collaboration and networking opportunities among local businesses, program marketing and management, and funding support to enable businesses to “prototype their experiential concepts,” Wittern said.
Amid the spread of COVID, many businesses found it helpful to transition to smaller, more personalized experiences, according to Wittern.
In 2021, the five participating businesses in the program engaged more than 400 community members from eight metro Denver counties in “new experiences,” Wittern said.
The city has allocated $75,000 for this year’s Spark Centennial program, according to Wittern.
Part of the city’s hopes for Spark Centennial near the beginning was to fuel more foot traffic at shopping centers and, possibly, for businesses to fill vacant spaces.
Centennial wanted to “capture the curiosity of visitors and (find out) what people would like to see there. And if that resulted in new businesses wanting to locate in Centennial, that would be fantastic,” Wittern said in 2019.
Those hopes don’t appear to have been realized so far, but the program has had other successes.
“I don’t know of any permanent locations that have opened up because of this program, but we did have one business report hiring three additional employees to offer unique experiences,” Wittern said this month.
Business owner Laura Tarket-Johnson of T is for Table — a shop that sells linens, fine pottery and other table accessories in west Centennial — shared that the Spark program inspired her to grow her business after a difficult year as a result of the pandemic, Wittern said.
As well, The Village Workspace — a coworking space in Centennial — plans to implement lessons learned from the program “to make the office a place you love to go to every day,” Wittern said.
Asked whether Spark Centennial appears to have brought more customers and more revenue to businesses in the shopping centers where Spark Centennial events have been held, Wittern said: “Despite the goals of the Spark Centennial program, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been exceptionally hard on local businesses and shopping centers.”
Three of the city’s 2021 Experience Accelerator participant businesses operate in locations in shopping centers and “commented positively about the inspiration they drew from the program to attract more customers and grow their business,” Wittern said.
She added: “Spark Centennial is still in its infancy — however, our outlook is optimistic given the early successes the program has achieved thus far and the strong interest in participating in the Experience Accelerator program from the business community this year.”
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