As national retailers continue to fold across the country, Spotsylvania Towne Centre’s owner has come up with a way to encourage small businesses to open in its malls.

Cafaro Co., which is headquartered in Niles, Ohio, has launched a contest called Small Shop Showdown. It’s asking budding Fredericksburg-area entrepreneurs to pitch their best business idea by Jan. 20 for a chance to win six months free rent in its Spotsylvania County mall.

“Small Shop Showdown is for people who have great ideas, but just need to take that last step in actually opening the door for business,” said Cafaro spokesman Joe Bell. “I’ve heard this referred to as a subdued version of ‘Shark Tank.’ We’re pitting the best ideas against each other to see what they can do.”

He was at Spotsylvania Towne Centre last Monday to kick off the contest, which runs through Jan. 20. Application forms are available online at or at the mall’s customer service desk. The mall’s leasing staff will evaluate the business plans and announce the winner Feb. 3.

Cafaro has seen large, national chains shutter. The latest example at Spotsylvania Towne Center is Sears, which has been an anchor there since the mall opened in 1980. It will close sometime in February, Bell said.

“We think small businesses are the way to go because it sells very well if you know your friends and neighbors and they know your product,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a product. Maybe you provide a service, some unique kind of service that’s important in the area.”

Cafaro piloted the Small Shop Showdown contest in June at Eastwood Mall, which is near its headquarters. It drew 20 applicants, and the winner was Renee Malutic, whose MiMe business combines photography with proprietary 3D printing technology to create miniaturized versions of customers. They can be used as cake toppers, milestones to document children’s growth and as keepsakes for friends and relatives.

“One of the things that we found most interesting is that we didn’t get just one or two good businesses,” he said. “We found a bunch of people who had really creative ideas. In a couple instances, even though they didn’t win, our leasing people went back and said, ‘Let’s keep talking. Maybe we can find a way to get a lease that’s affordable for you.’ And they ultimately did for a couple of them.”

Encouraged by the response, Cafaro held a second Small Shop Showdown at Kentucky Oaks Mall in Paducah, Ky., last summer. The winner, Lisa Dunn of Paducah, relocated her small business, Lisa’s Bridal, from a side street in a former church building to the mall in October.

“Her business plan was so well thought out, and she had a demonstrated track record. It was clear that she was the most likely to succeed,” Bell said. “She’s created this gorgeous—I mean gorgeous—bridal salon in the mall. She gets a lot more visibility now. The winners of both of those, very different, but filled a need.”

Spotsylvania Towne Centre is the third of the company’s 12 enclosed malls to offer the contest. It was chosen, he said, because the company can tell there are entrepreneurs in the area with a lot of good ideas by the thought that goes into some of the local businesses.

“You can tell that there is kind of a bubbling fervor to get into business,” Bell said. “People are anxious to do things.”

The winner will need to be ready to open in Spotsylvania Towne Center on April 1, and will have use of one of the few vacant spaces in the mall for free through Sept. 30. The prize also includes a package of promotional help to get their business off the ground, including posters, a news release, digital signage and advertising on social media. Store fixtures such as shelving that the mall has in storage could be thrown in as well.

The winning business doesn’t necessarily have to be a clothing boutique or offer gourmet fare, Bell said. It could be a child care concept, a popular bar that wants to open a second location—or even something as unusual as a nightclub that includes a dog park so people can sip their drinks while watching their pups play.

“That’s really popular with singles who have pets,” he said.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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