SPARTA, Mich. (WOOD) — Starting a new business can come with huge expenses.

Small business owners in Sparta are getting a low-risk opportunity to see if their business has what it takes — and they’re already seeing the first signs of success.

The Sparta Town Square Retail Incubator Project launched in the first year of the pandemic, transforming a vacant, underutilized spot in downtown Sparta into a bustling marketplace.

“It began with a little bit of a crazy dream in 2019,” said Elizabeth Morse, the director of the Sparta Downtown Development Authority.

In the heart of downtown Sparta, you’ll find a little plaza at 177 E. Division Street.

It features a little boardwalk, a pergola and four shipping containers.

Morse said the plan to revitalize the area and help young businesses launch inside renovated, reused shipping containers came with some doubters.

“There was a little discomfort the idea of, ‘Guys we’re going to throw some shipping containers in this parking lot, I promise it’s going to be OK.’ There was definitely a little bit of concern,” said Morse.

“We started out in the container. Both of us knew we were outgrowing the containers but neither one of us was really ready for the leap yet into a larger-size store and with the financial commitment alone,” said Melanie Gallagher, owner of The Wild Bee.

After less than a year working out of the containers, Gallagher and her business partner were able to move their businesses and share space inside the building at 201 Marketplace, right next door to the incubator project.

The 201 Marketplace, located next to the Sparta incubator project.

They’re not the only success story: Sweets 4 Days Bakery & Creations will move later this month from its 150 square foot container into a building on South Union Street.

“We were here in Sparta for a craft show event and they were passing out fliers saying, ‘We have two openings, would you like it,’ and we jumped,” said Julie Trombley, owner of Dottie’s Dog Bowl.

Trombley started making dog treats at home. Her business, Dottie’s Dog Bowl, is now located in the first storage container on the left.

“Everybody buys from everybody and it’s kind of a cool thing to be a part of,” said Trombley.

Across the board walk, Ronnie Edison is cooking up something good, after all the pandemic took from the restaurant industry.

“I was a former chef at another restaurant in Grand Rapids. When that (pandemic) came along, opportunity arose and with something bad came something good,” said Edison, owner of Ronnie Mack’s Hotbox Hash House.

With a grant of $2,500 from the Consumers Energy Foundation and the help of some private developers, downtown Sparta is open for business.

Last year, the Michigan Downtown Association awarded the project the best economic development project for a small town in the state of Michigan under $1 million.