Doug Marklein thinks there’s a use for downtown Janesville’s abundance of vacant properties while the city waits for them to fill with permanent businesses.

They’re called pop-up shops, and they’re a way for residents to test the waters of full-time business, for the city to market downtown and for property owners to make use of empty buildings, he said.

After hearing about the success of pop-up stores in other Wisconsin cities, Marklein, city council president, is taking the initial steps to see if something similar would work in Janesville, he said.

“We have vacant storefronts, and they’re not doing any good being vacant. Anything we can do to fill those storefront, even if it’s very temporary, it’s a good thing,” he said. “We have the space, so why not take advantage of it?”

Rollin Pin Bakery

The best example of a successful local pop-up shop Marklein pointed to is Bob Hiller’s Rollin Pin Bakery.

After 52 years of operating a brick-and-mortar business, Hiller semiretired and decided to take his mobile bakery wagon to events and fairs throughout the summer. Hiller started renting space to store his equipment at Harmony Plaza, 1060 E. Highway 14.

After running his business all summer, Hiller shut off the heat in the winter. The following season, he found out much of his equipment had been ruined by the low temperatures. He was told he would have to keep the rented space heated each winter.

Hiller decided to make the best of it. He now sells cream puffs and eclairs a few weekends a year between the end of October and New Years.

The decision has served him well; Hiller’s shop is wildly popular the few days a year it’s open, he said.

“It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “There’s almost 1,000 customers every Saturday. They’re lined up and down the parking lot.”

Some customers buy dozens of treats at a time, freeze them and ration the treats until the shop’s next opening. Customers sometimes wait more than 30 minutes to order their desserts, Hiller said.

Hiller said it’s possible other business owners could see similar success if pop-up shops opened downtown. Hiller called the idea “terrific.”

“I know it’s successful for us,” he said.

Others’ successes

Janesville is considering creating a business improvement district that would raise money to improve parts of downtown.

Baraboo has a BID, and property owners within it have offered low-rate, short-term leases to local entrepreneurs who want to operate pop-shops between October and December, according to a Downtown Baraboo news release.

Pop-up shops “generate excitement and keep the downtown shopping experience fresh” and “can go on to become long-term businesses,” the release reads.

Customers enjoy discovering new businesses, which increases foot traffic and sales for downtown businesses overall, according to the release.

“It makes a great promotion for the downtown,” Marklein said.

Marklein said Viroqua turns pop-up stores into festival-like weekends. Several will open at the same time, and residents will flock downtown to enjoy them.

Meanwhile, those operating the shops get a relatively low-risk, low-cost taste of what running a full-time business might be like, he said.

“The hope is that a few of them get a taste for it … and can actually make it work and stick around and look for a permanent home,” Marklein said.

Forward Janesville President John Beckord said the trial aspect is appealing.

“That’s really attractive to folks that are dabbling with an idea but not ready to go all in,” he said

Three or four pop-up stores in Viroqua have become permanent businesses thanks to the program’s success, Marklein said.

Making it work for Janesville

Allowing for pop-up shops can require occupancy licenses, rezoning, approvals from different committees and plenty of other paperwork. Residents might not find it worthwhile to go through all that for a pop-up store that will be open for only a weekend, Marklein said.

“Even putting up a sign involves a permit,” Beckord said.

There’s a way to simplify the process, though.

Owners of vacant properties could prequalify their buildings for pop-up shops. Officials could review a property early to make sure it’s up to code, Marklein said.

Based on what’s available within the properties, they could be set aside for specific uses. A property without a kitchen wouldn’t be allowed to sell food, for instance. Then, when someone does want to open a pop-up shop, almost everything is already in order, he said.

“Let’s just cut through the red tape,” Marklein said.

Of course, vacant property owners might not be willing to lease spaces or prequalify them for pop-up shops. On top of that, it’s possible pop-up shops might not garner the public interest seen in Baraboo and Viroqua, he said.

Marklein estimated it would take at least another year to gather information and drum up enough interest to bring the matter before the city council.

“It’s not a guarantee, but it’s definitely worth trying,” Marklein said.

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