It used to be retail property owners would only consider national, credit-rated companies as possible tenants for their centers. But the current downturn has rolled the dice in favor of smaller, local start-ups. So much so, in fact, that Washington, D.C.-based developer Madison Marquette is willing to pay aspiring entrepreneurs to develop a successful retail business to occupy its properties.

In April, Madison Marquette unveiled its Retail*Star incubator program, a competition for a new store idea that carries a prize of more than $250,000. Starting this spring, the firm will sign up interested parties for the four-month contest, in which participants will develop a comprehensive business plan, branding strategy and logo. The winner will receive $25,000 to launch the concept, in addition to getting a $200,000 build-out and a year of free rent at Madison Marquette's 816,000-square-foot Bayfair Center in San Leandro, Calif. “In this environment, where national tenants are cutting back, we need new compelling ideas to fill our space,” says Eric Hohmann, the firm's director for the Western region. “We wanted to do something a little unique and a little fun, but we are serious.”

The Retail*Star competition kicked off on Apr. 29 with a meeting for interested parties at the Bayfair Center. By June, Madison Marquette's panel of judges will winnow the list of candidates down to 15. The semifinalists will then be asked to present their business plans. The final awards ceremony will take place in July or August, with the grand opening scheduled for November. Only one of the judges will be affiliated with Madison Marquette. The rest will becity officials, retail executives and business consultants.