In the span of two years Wildflowers Armory earned $1 million in revenue, distributed among 140 local artisans and creatives based in Central New York – all during a pandemic.
The profits have helped maintain a communal space in the heart of downtown Syracuse for artisans to sell their handcrafted merchandise, volunteer and support other artists, at the corner of Fayette and Salina streets.
At Wildflowers, local artisans have an opportunity to grow their business while establishing community through shared interests. Yet, the success of such an unconventional idea did not sprout overnight.
The Salt City’s very own community builder Michael John Heagerty, the mastermind behind creating a pop-up hub for creators, developed the vendors’ series into a two-story mecca in Central New York.
Syracuse natives Justin Dwyer and Justin Johnson are the co-owners of Just Bros Vintage, located in the lower level of the McCarthy Mercantile building. The shop features a selection of wearable art, from pop culture clothing inspired by 1980-90’s era styles to collectible items.
“To have my own store in Syracuse is an amazing feat for me. I’m very proud of that,” Dwyer said. “But it’s like I never expected it, so now it’s here and we’re able to give something back to the community and the city. That wasn’t here and it’s really cool to connect with people and locals.”
Flower Skate Shop, neighboring vendor co-founded by John More, Drew Shoup, and Charlie Giancola, sells an assortment of apparel and gear for skaters and non-skaters, who enjoy a relaxed, sporty chic aesthetic.
More shares his reverence for Wildflowers and its importance for providing exposure to local businesses all in one space.
“It basically gives us a homebase for a lot of people to come down here and experience not just our stores, but everyone else’s stores,” More said.
Independent artists and vendors who are entrepreneurs – or as Wildflowers founder Michael John Heagerty coined the term, “artpreneurs” – have for decades depended on rental spaces in local boutiques, shops or securing a slot at one of the many annual festivals in Central New York, to sell their products.
“The unique thing that Michael did was give designers, artists and community, a sense to kind of be all in one space in a unique way,” said Jamie Ann Owens, co-founder of Bank Alley Social Club and Heagerty’s long-time business partner.
The annual tradition of waiting for seasonal festivals and responses to leasing inquiries was part of what led Heagerty to the idea of providing artisans with the opportunity to profit year-round.
Heagerty called attention to the limited options for vending opportunities that were often met with inflated vendoring fees, parking insecurity, traveling and lack of basic necessities, such as water.
“There’s never a lack of opportunity for creatives,” Heagerty said. “There’s a lack of understanding whether or not the opportunity will turn out good for that creative.”
Through Heagerty’s experience in multifaceted endeavors, including pop-up shop founder, artist, and social coordinator, his ambitions for artisans to have better opportunities grew.
He sought out to create a space for vendors to showcase their work with the goal of earning even profits from their handcrafted products.
Infinite Pop: The precursor
Infinite Pop was the seed that took root and eventually blossomed into Wildflowers, and Heagerty and his team’s present success at the McCarthy building.
In 2016, pop-up shops were gaining regional traction and Infinite Pop was among many. The shop exemplified “Etsy in real life,” Heagerty said, recalling the etched memory of an excited patron’s description of the pop-up.
“The Infinite Pop was my thing, it was like, I’m gonna do this as an answer to the only opportunity outside craft festivals run by people who aren’t crafters, who don’t respect the people at the show,” Heagerty said.
Heagerty used Instagram live as a way to grow awareness, connect with viewers, all while simultaneously processing transactions with his Square plug-in device.
“You know, Michael really pushed social media at a time when it was still kind of fresh, especially in Syracuse,” Owens said.
Heagerty admits to his relentless pursuit: “I knew how important this was to everyone, not just to me” he said. “I am not some hero, but I was making sure that we were able to do this kind of thing.”
The Core 7
Through his persistence, Heagetry was able to assemble his “Core 7” team, consisting of experienced vendors with diverse talents and skill sets. The Core 7, which includes Heagerty, received assistance from a small business lawyer, and broker, to find the perfect space.
- Lisa Richards Cane: Accountant, street and landscape photographer
- Sara Seib: Vice president at Wildflowers, owner of Cuppa Candles
- Dan Binham: Art school teacher and illustrator
- Kent Terpening: Former co-owner of Kingsley artisan soaps
- Glenn Zansitis: Eco-friendly clothing line owner and screen printer
- Kara Daviau: Merchandiser at Wildflowers, art school teacher, painter
Owens and Heagerty said the main objective of Wildflowers was for it to feel inclusive for vendors and guests who entered the space.
“No one had to be ashamed or try to adjust who they were in their life, or in their art and I think that is the uniqueness of Wildflowers,” Owens said.
On May 4, 2018, at the corner of Salina and Fayette Street in the McCarthy building, Wildflowers Armory found its home.
It has since continued to expand with the lower level, known as “McCarthy Mercantile,” a multi-use hub for creatives, artists, and vendors. The space also has businesses permanently housed at Wildflowers.
In the spirit of remaining authentic to where and how he began Infinite Pop, Heagerty and the Wildflowers team continued to utilize social media as a method to reach and recruit new vendor prospects.
Heagerty said recruitment is the most challenging aspect.
The recruitment process is open to the public with requirements for vending at Wildflowers, being products are 100% handmade, originality and the artisan is based in Central New York. Heagerty believes what differentiates Wildflowers from galleries and other retail shops where vendors display their products is that those places often have a higher commission percentage and rental costs.
The system in place at Wildflowers consists of an even trade-off of vending and volunteering.
Wildflowers unique structure allows them to borrow up to 40 vendors to complete 2-4 four-hour shifts each month. In exchange all vendors work at the counter with the opportunity to earn a month’s worth of sales.
In an effort to provide comfort to vendors, the Wildflowers team is transparent about the educational and business aspect of pursuing entrepreneurship. By taking on the structural responsibility of handling the logistics, like marketing, legal, finance and insurance. The team ensures vendors are legitimized and recognized as real businesses.
Heagerty’s goal for artisan vendors is to focus on working on their artistic production.
“You work with your hands and be inspired to do cool stuff,” he said.
All artisans submissions are managed through a digital communication tool, where new vendors fill out and submit an online questionnaire, the board then makes a decision based on the required prerequisites.
Similarly, to his communication tactic, Heagerty and the Wildflowers team remain consistent with their payment processing tool.
In the tradition of being a collective, vendors and board members contribute to pay the rent at Wildflowers. Artisans also receive an 80/20 percentage split of their sales.
“We split rental down to the exact dollar across the board to all vendors, so even the board members who are the ones, who are co-owners of the shop, are paying to be vendors at the shop like anybody else, so we are on an equal playing field.”
And, in case the rental price cannot be reached due to not having enough vendors, then the board members and co-owners are responsible for rental payment, Heagerty explained.
Heagerty attributes Wildflower’s sustainability to its malleability.
“My product is Wildflowers: the branding, the market, the special events, the activation of community is my art,” Heagerty said. He admits his responsibility as the poster child of Wildflower helps them to remain in the limelight.
In applying his knowledge and expertise with running pop-up shops, Heagerty understands that achieving something long-term requires various levels of innovative creativity.
In a short time much of Wildflower’s success has derived from the need for educating vendors, building community and creating a home base for local artisans. The businesses future plans reflect what they want to implant in the upcoming generation of artreprenuers.
“We are resilient, we grow in strange places, we find places that are forgotten and make them beautiful,” Heagerty said.
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