DDR Corp., the Cleveland-based real estate investment trust that bought 110 shopping centers from Benderson Development Co. at the height of the market, is introducing a business incubator program with six months of free rent to deal with the excess vacancies it now faces in many of those plazas.

To receive the free rent, a tenant must sign a 2-year lease.

The publicly traded company is rolling out its new "Set Up Shop" program in 15 shopping centers in New York and Pennsylvania, with a total of 38 retail units available for start-up retail businesses.

That includes nine area centers in Batavia, Cheektowaga, Jamestown, Lockport, North Tonawanda, Warsaw and Williamsville, as well as other sites in Big Flats, Le Roy, New Hartford, and Penfield. One plaza is in Erie, Pa.

The units vary in exact size but are small spaces designed to house retail shops that are just starting up. The program features free rent for the first six months and a cap on other expenses, but the business has to sign a lease for 30 months.

"We're looking for entrepreneurs. We're looking for start-ups," said David J. Perry, senior director of marketing services for DDR. "It has to fit in with the merchandise mix of the center and be retail. That's what we're looking for."

DDR is the nation's leading owner, manager, developer and operator of shopping centers, with 459 retail properties and 117 million square feet of space in 39 states, Puerto Rico and Brazil. The company paid $2.3 billion to buy the package of Benderson properties in 2004, only to sell back 11 of them to Benderson in June 2009 for a deep discount.

It also unloaded others in recent years to other companies after DDR's finances were hammered during the financial crisis and recession. It is one of the largest retail property owners in Western New York, with more than 4 million square feet of space in the Buffalo and Rochester markets.

"It's a natural launch in the Buffalo market because we're one of the largest owners and managers of shopping centers in the Buffalo market," Perry said.

The offer is an effort by DDR to deal with an excess of vacant space in its plazas. The retail market nationally is still struggling in the lackluster economic recovery, with consumers holding back on their spending. The company posted a leased rate of 94 percent in the second quarter but still has a lot of small spaces available in these centers.

By making some of the units available at a lower cost, Perry said, DDR is trying to support and encourage start-up businesses, while also locking some new tenants into its vacant plazas for the next couple of years.

"I don't think it's any secret that, nationally, there's been a lull in the economy in general, and it has impacted the entrepreneur and startups," Perry said. "So it definitely has impacted us, and we look at as a way to help revive that."

The company first introduced the program in the Atlanta market in February and then later in Florida, with a total of 48 shopping centers participating in Georgia and Florida.

So far, about 30 new merchants have taken advantage of it, including fitness studios, music stores, restaurants, tax preparation services, barber shops, salons, dance studios, cafes, sporting goods stores, apparel retailers and accessories stores.

DDR is also continuing a partnership with SCORE, a national nonprofit association of retired business executives who work to counsel and educate entrepreneurs. SCORE will act as a resource for Set Up Shop tenants in New York and Pennsylvania, offering free and confidential business consulting services.

Interested entrepreneurs may contact the plaza managers directly or go online for more information at Each of the shopping centers also has signs posted with information, Perry said.

The Western New York plazas include:

. Batavia Commons in Batavia, with 49,431 square feet of total space and one unit available for the incubator.

. Tops Plaza in Cheektowaga, with 151,357 square feet of total space and three units available.

. Union Consumer Square in Cheektowaga, with 386,548 square feet of total space and four units available.

. Tops Plaza in Jamestown, with 98,001 square feet of total space and two units available for start-ups.

. Tops Plaza in Lockport, with 296,582 square feet and three incubator units.

. Mid-City Plaza in North Tonawanda, with 227,995 square feet and two units for new businesses.

. Sheridan Plaza in the Town of Tonawanda, with 121,846 square feet and two incubator units.

. Tops Plaza in Warsaw, with 74,105 square feet and three start-up units.

.Premier Place in Amherst, with 141,639 square feet in all and four units open for new businesses.?