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Charles Village finds its 'Mojo' in quest to fill vacant storefronts

Community leaders working with market research company

By Larry Perl, lperl@tribune.com

1:06 PM EDT, April 14, 2014

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In an effort to fill vacant storefronts with businesses that residents want, community associations in Charles Village and Old Goucher are partnering with Spotmojo, a California-based 'crowd-sourcing' company that does neighborhood-based market research, free of charge to communities.

"After digesting it, we thought, it doesn't cost anything," said John Spurrier, a real estate agent and a member of the land use committee of the Charles Village Civic Association. "It could be a great opportunity to contact residents about what they'd like to see in specific locations. I figure we can't lose."

There is a need for businesses such as bakeries, restaurants and bicycle repair shops in the Charles Village-Abell-Waverly-Oakenshawe area, which has a lot of vacant retail spaces with absentee landlords that Spotmojo could help reach out to, Spurrier said.

Peter Duvall, an Old Goucher resident and community revitalization organizer for the Greater Homewood Community Corp., said landlords have to be willing to participate in the initiative and that Spotmojo could help screen landlords, "so you don't go down a blind alley."

Community leaders hope to bring preferred businesses to the area — "businesses that people would feel comfortable walking to," Spurrier said .

An example of the kinds of businesses that residents gennerally don't want are liquor stores and controversial establishments like The Den, an ill-fated former lounge above the restaurant Tamber's on St. Paul Street in Charles Village.

The city closed The Den down for lack of proper zoning.

"I think when it comes to liquor licenses, people are a little cautious," Spurrier said.

Spotmojo was launched in Oakland, Calif, by Michael Hsueh and Ron Griffiths in November 2012 as "a platform where the community can suggest ideas for their neighborhood, businesses can search and see where people are asking for them, pitch their ideas and get feedback, and realtors can use that information to help them lease out space," Hsueh said.

They took their inspiration from Oakland, where a housing boom converted a lot of old factories into condominiums and apartments. San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, in particular, had a lot of rundown or vacant buildings, Hsueh said.

Spotmojo is now looking to expand into Baltimore, which has a lot of similarities with Oakland, Hsueh said.

Spotmojo's local representative is Carol Ott, director of Housing Policy Watch, a local watchdog group. Ott also runs the blog site Baltimore Slumlord Watch.

Ott made news late last year when the Baltimore Sun reported she was sued over a mural project intended to publicly shame owners of vacant properties in the city. One mural was at 4727 Old York Road, and the other in west Baltimore.

"I thought Slumlord Watch was such an interesting idea, with similar goals to Spotmojo, so I reached out to Carol," Hsueh said.

Ott referred questions about Spotmojo to Hsueh.

In its initial launch, Spotmojo worked with 14 cities in the San Francisco Bay area. At the suggestion of residents in Alameda, Spotmojo helped attract the Alameda Island Brewing Co., Hsueh said.

"Our overall goal is to be a platform that connects communities, businesses and commercial property brokers/owners nationwide," he said. "We really do think it's a win-win-win for all three of our customer segments. The community benefits from attracting successful businesses that improve their neighborhood (and) bring more businesses that they need closer to them," Hsueh said.

He said businesses benefit by knowing where their customers are, and that for commercial property owners, finding good tenants keeps the spaces occupied longer and helps beautify neighborhoods.

Spotmojo's website allows businesses to pitch ideas and communities to vote on them. Ideas for Charles Village range from a wine bar to a Vietnamese restaurant.

"We're not asking for donations, just gauging interest and building a customer base before you sign a lease," Hsueh said. "We hope this takes a lot of risk out of starting a small business and encourages those on the ropes to go for it."

Commercial real estate agents can access the suggestions and feedback to help them attract businesses, Hsueh said.

He said Spotmojo has been "beta" testing its services and providing reports for free. Spotmojo is now trying to monetize its crowd-sourcing services and the reports it issues "on the back end," he said. The company is now starting to sell its services to real estate brokers and agents, Hsueh said. Services and reports are free for communities, he said.

Spurrier said for community leaders, "it's an opportunity to collect a lot of information from a lot of people without having to attend meetings

" I've been spreading the word and keeping an eye out for businesses," he said. "I think with the right promotion, we can attract the types of businesses residents want and will support. So many people in the neighborhood know what they don't want — like a Walmart."