Small businesses, major opportunities

When the Rabobank branch in the Dutch village of Waspik was about to close its doors, local Rabobank De Langstraat decided not to sell the building in which it was housed. Instead, it would make the space available for local, social initiatives and, in doing so, contribute to improving the quality of life in the village. Encouraged to share their ideas, residents and businesses from the village and beyond collectively voted the idea of a new mini-shopping centre, to be known as ''t Binnenhof', as the winner.

Brabant-based local Rabobank makes way for quaint village square

As their winning idea, the village residents chose a plan to offer accessible and affordable rental spaces to new businesses struggling to pay the rent for their own retail space. The idea was proposed by Ingrid Holman, a Waspik resident who was born and raised in the village. 'I simply went around asking people what they felt was missing in our village,' she says. 'We have lost many amenities over the years here in Waspik, and various shops have come and gone. We do still get the odd new business trying to set up shop here, but many end up having a hard time of it. Still, it turned out that you can be a lot more effective when working on a smaller scale. The retailers in “'t Binnenhof” have floor space of between 20 and 30 square metres, which you would really be hard pressed to find anywhere else around here. And the great thing is that we are able to keep rents low because we have outsourced the management to a non-profit foundation. I have to say, I am very proud of the result.'

No shortage of volunteers

In developing her plans, Holman was assisted by a team of dedicated local volunteers. An architect provided the technical drawings, a civil-law notary ensured compliance with laws and regulations, and an independent financial expert (not affiliated with Rabobank) was on hand to provide advice. Jan Kielestein, Business Management Director at Rabobank De Langstraat: 'All Rabobank did was set the wheels in motion by acting as a facilitator. That is to say, we provided the space, got a professional agency involved, and made sure the space was ready for use. The businesses themselves took on the actual design of the space. What made this project so oial is that so many local residents offered their services free of charge and helped to achieve this result. It's fantastic to see people getting together like that and teaming up – without any money exchanging hands – to turn an idea into a success.'

Voting for the best ideas

The residents of Waspik were invited to submit their ideas through the online platform 'Room for Ideas'. Kielestein: 'We really wanted people to come up with their own ideas, so the intention was for Rabobank to remain in the background and only play a facilitating role. We wanted to avoid creating the misunderstanding that we had any commercial interests in this initiative at all.' The bank enlisted the services of 360graden Rond, a company that develops local community action projects, to implement the idea. The project became a high-profile initiative for the company, including reports in the local media and special village meetings.

Having embraced the exciting new plan, the residents of Waspik ended up contributing a total of 55 ideas altogether. 360graden Rond tested these ideas based on a number of pre-set criteria: the idea needed to be financially viable and should not compete with other local retailers. An independent judging panel selected a top 3 of the best ideas and organised a vote among the residents. Forty-three percent of the village's residents eventually cast their vote, following a campaign in which the candidates put their best foot forward by distributing flyers, putting up posters around the village and promoting their business through their websites.

Sharing the wealth

Ingrid Holman's brainchild has become a reality: the ''t Binnenhof shopping centre' is a collection of six tastefully decorated shops located on a quaint village square complete with a street café and coffee bar. Village residents shop here to purchase home accessories, arts and crafts supplies, women's fashions, tools and produce, while the centre is also home to a clothing alterations boutique.

Brit Kuijsters, one of the new small business owners who was given the opportunity to set up shop here, repairs and alters clothing and makes leather bags in her sewing workshop, the MixStudio.

Kuijsters: 'I know I would have had a hard time breaking even if I had simply rented a space somewhere in the village. I would probably have struggled even just coming up with the rent alone. The idea of “'t Binnenhof” gave me the unique opportunity of starting my own small business. Customers of the other businesses here sooner or later end up walking into my shop – it's a way of “sharing the wealth”, so to speak. I have also started to provide services that are no longer available elsewhere in the village. For example, people can bring me their dry-cleaning, or shoes for repair. And judging by the amount of business I'm getting, I can tell there's a real demand for it, too.'