Who will brave the ‘Shark Tank’ for $50,000?

A new downtown sign on the west side of Monterey Street just north of Fourth Street.

The Gilroy Downtown Business Association is shaking things up in a quest to get vacant downtown buildings occupied by baiting budding entrepreneurs to dive headfirst into the “Gilroy Shark Tank” competition in June.

The competition, modeled on the hugely popular ABC program “Shark Tank,” is the brainchild of GDBA President James Suner who hopes a grand prize grant of $50,000 from the GDBA’s unrestricted fund will see aspiring business owners pitch their commercial visions to a trio of experienced local business people.

“It’s a live pitch,” Suner explained. “They have to get up with their charts and graphs.”

Anyone who shows up unprepared “will be eaten alive,” he added, good humoredly.

For the moment, the identities of the judges (or, “Sharks” as Suner refers to them), will remain shrouded in mystery.

“I’ve lined up two of the Sharks and I’m working on the third,” noted Suner, who wants to build public anticipation.

Suner, 48, is the President and CEO of the James Group which specializes in real estate development and construction. Suner has lived in Gilroy for 12 years and watched as other Bay Area cities revitalized their downtown areas. He doesn’t understand why Gilroy should be any different.

“When Santana Row (in San Jose) opened, it literally sucked the life out of the downtowns of Campbell, Los Gatos, Sunnyvale and Mountain View,” he recalled.

But, he adds, all of these downtowns got rebuilt, reoccupied and re-imagined. Suner wants the same for Gilroy.

According to the GDBA website, there are a total of 24 buildings that have one or more vacant spaces in them. Suner has reached out to the majority of the owners and landlords of those buildings in hopes of hooking them with the “Shark Tank Gilroy” idea and to pre-negotiate reduced or graduated leases. Suner admits that these types of negotiations are complicated, but says that he is “yet to hear a negative response.”

Dave Peoples, owner of Garlic City Mercantile and Shirtworks located downtown at 7550 Monterey St., sees the positives in the GDBA’s ambitious competition.

“I feel that anything we can do is better than what we’ve been doing,” he said.

Suner also addressed the issue of the vacant Unreinforced Masonry Buildings that litter the streetscape of downtown.

“We have brand new buildings that are vacant, this (competition) is going to be aimed at everything but Unreinforced Masonry Buildings,” clarified Suner.

The next step is to showcase vacant properties to the aspiring entrepreneurs May 17, so that the contestants can look at the locations and get a feel for the square footage, said Suner.

Following a walk-through of all the available buildings, the contestants will submit an application package that describes in detail the business model. The live pitch, which will be open to the public and is tentatively scheduled for June 8, will see the contestants attempt to win over the Gilroy “Sharks” with their business plans. The event’s location will be determined by how many applications the GDBA receives. If the response is small, upstairs at the Old City Hall Restaurant located at 7400 Monterey St. will be used; if the response is large, then renting the building that used to house the Strand Theater, but now is home to Desero Tequila Town and Restaurant, on Monterey Street could be a possibility.

Development Center Manager Lee Butler, speaking for the City of Gilroy at Tuesday’s GDBA board meeting, suggested a broad and inclusive outreach strategy.

“We need to make sure that underserved communities get to read about this,” said Butler. “Whether the outreach is at churches or wherever, the more participants the better.”

Suner agrees with Butler’s observations, but doesn’t see the competition extending its reach past the Bay Area.

“I don’t imagine people from St. Louis, Missouri are going to compete to set up a store in Gilroy,” he remarked, before adding that a successful business venture could come from anywhere. However, the entrants need to have a firm understanding of the downtown area’s needs, said Suner.

The Sharks themselves will have more responsibilities than judging, as they will also mentor the winner post-competition. The value of this free expertise should be factored into the total amount of prize money, noted Amber Madrone, owner of Mango Street Kids in downtown Gilroy.

In response to a question from GDBA Treasurer Harvey Blodgett, who wanted to know if the $50,000 was a grant or a loan, Suner reminded that whoever wins the competition gets to keep the loot.

“We’re not going to ask for the $50,000 to be paid back,” he said of the money, which is roughly half of what remains in the restricted funds.

However, competition rules will strictly mandate that the money has to be spent on the creation of a new business, located in downtown Gilroy.

According to Suner, he gave the GDBA the money to spend, not to hoard.

“We’ve had that money sitting in an account for seven years now,” he reasoned.

While Suner has no idea how many people will apply, he is confident the competition will get people thinking about how to get empty buildings filled and downtown Gilroy buzzing again.

“We might get three, we might get 30,” he speculated.

He predicts an audience of other investors at the Gilroy Shark Tank who may disagree with the winning business proposal, but points out that the ripple effects of this event could spread beyond the winner. Suner hopes other investors who spectate during the competition might be compelled to help jumpstart other promising business proposals that catch their eye.

“We will connect the entrepreneurs who participate in the competition with potential investors,” Suner explained.

The GDBA doesn’t see the event as a one-time thing, either. Suner wants to get corporate dollars on board to make it an annual occasion, keeping the entrepreneurial momentum going strong and the downtown economic juices flowing.

Suner again points to the success stories of other downtowns that came back to life after appearing dead for a long time. Those cities pulled themselves out of the ‘90s and into the new century, Suner says.

Gilroy, he insists, is on the cusp of that turning point.

“We’ve got a lot of vacancy,” he said. “And that equals a lot of opportunity.”