After its Retail*Star contest turned out to be a smash in 2009, Madison Marquette, a Washington, D.C.-based retail developer and investor, decided to make the competition an annual affair. The contest, modeled after reality TV hits like Project Runway and American Idol, gives entrepreneurs with a start-up idea the chance to win a free lease at one of Madison Marquette's properties and some investment capital.

Last year, 66 applicants showed up at the orientation event for Retail*Star. This year, Madison Marquette says the number was even higher.

“The reason we created this program from scratch is we wanted [space] users,” says Eric Hohmann, managing director of property investments with the company. “And the second reason was we wanted to have some fun and generate positive publicity for our projects and our company. But we also got a number of good ideas from last year, and four permanent rent-paying tenants. That was unanticipated.”

In 2009, the competition started in April and lasted eight months and included three phases, during which would-be retailers fine-tuned their concepts, met with consultants and learned how to create business plans.

A panel of industry professionals, including a representative from Madison Marquette, then chose the concept with the most promise. The winner, former McKinsey consultant Ben Wanzo, came up with the idea of the Teach Bar, a tea lounge that offers educational seminars. Wanzo's prize included $250,000 in start-up money and a free year-long lease for space at Madison Marquette's Bayfair Center, in San Leandro, Calif. The winner also gets a three-year membership with the local Chamber of Commerce.

This year, Wanzo will serve as one of the five judges for Retail*Star 2010, along with a Madison Marquette executive and two local business people who are active in the retail industry. Madison Marquette also plans to update the 2010 competition with an effort to generate an online community vote from Bayfair Center shoppers.

The company, which is looking for potential sponsors for the contest, wants to eventually expand Retail*Star from a Bayfair-specific event to other properties in its portfolio.

“I'd like to make this a tradition,” says Hohmann. “It's management-intensive right now, but if it becomes an annual event, it will snowball. The sponsorships will get better, the quality of the applications will improve and it will become something that Madison Marquette can offer to other properties.”

This year's Retail*Star kicked off on Apr. 7, with the winner scheduled to be announced in July.

Prize Package

$25,000 in start-up funds

A $200,000 complete retail build-out

A year of free rent at the Bayfair Center, valued at $40,000

A three-year membership with the local Chamber of Commerce