An urban renaissance is underway, as attention turns from sprawling shopping centers to historic commercial districts. Getting there has taken decades of grassroots change.
Before that blizzard in the early 1980s, downtown Crystal Lake had already taken some hard knocks, as local retailers left for newer, larger shopping centers and malls located closer to suburban outgrowth. When the snowfall caused the roof of a vacant building to collapse, nearby business owners took notice.
“If there’s a pivotal moment in our story, it’s when the roof to the Jewel collapsed and people said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’” says Diana Kenney, director of Downtown Crystal Lake and a longtime resident.
After 30 years of hard work, downtown Crystal Lake is enjoying a near-zero vacancy rate. The streets are lined with brick pavers, colorful flower baskets and thriving shops. An array of ongoing events attracts many more visitors to the neighborhood.
Across Chicagoland, our historical commercial districts are reawakening, as changing economic conditions and the growing influence of a younger, more urban-loving crowd ignite a newfound interest. Though it’s taken many years to reach this point, this urban renaissance is largely the product of rugged entrepreneurialism, private-public partnership and visionary leadership.
Here’s a look at what’s worked in four area neighborhoods.
A Full House in Crystal Lake
Partnerships have been a key component to its revitalization, and no group has been a bigger advocate than the nonprofit Downtown Crystal Lake. For 14 years, Kenney has led the charge for this volunteer-driven group, which hosts local festivals and addresses neighborhood issues.
“[Revitalization] didn’t happen because of one person or one entity,” says Kenney. “It didn’t happen because of one anything. It happened because a group, a community, came together and worked to create it. I’m really proud of where we are today, but I’m not sitting back, because we have to keep working.”
A key part of Downtown Crystal Lake’s strategy lies in its involvement with the nonprofit Illinois Main Street program. This statewide effort to improve historic districts uses a four-point approach to revitalization.
The first focus is on aesthetic elements such as flower planters, antique-style streetlights and historic preservation. The second point emphasizes organization and a ready volunteer base, while the third emphasizes promotion and marketing. In Crystal Lake, the latter is often evident at special events, such as the annual sidewalk sale, or Third Thursday, which attracts evening shoppers, and gatherings such as the Johnny Appleseed Festival.
Finally, the Main Street approach emphasizes “economic restructuring,” a big project that’s been guided by James Richter II, planning and economic development manager for the City of Crystal Lake. In his 15 years with the city, he’s helped to connect small businesses with downtown economic incentives.
“A number of our businesses have come about from contacts the city has with entrepreneurs who say they’re thinking of starting a business,” says Richter. “The family that owns Kitchen Outfitters, for example, came to me and said, ‘If we were to do something in this space we own, what should we do?’ The city used to have a cooking supply store downtown and it was sorely missed. So, we brought in Kitchen Outfitters to fill that need.”
Outreach is an essential part of Richter’s mission, whether he’s courting locally owned businesses or big-box stores. Over the past 3.5 years, his office has helped to fill 1.5 million square feet of retail space, including stores vacated by Borders, Circuit City and Office Depot during the recession. In 2013, the city welcomed 70 new businesses with 10 or fewer employees. Some of those startups gained from the city’s incentive programs.
“We have a $10,000 matching grant program that offers a reimbursement for certain purchases,” says Richter. “They can apply before they’ve started the business for a 50/50 split on eligible furniture, equipment, point-of-sale systems.”
Additional monies are available, based on the number of employees hired. Each year, the city allocates about $80,000 – enough to help at least eight businesses a year at the maximum allowance.
Early in its revitalization efforts, downtown also benefitted from a Tax Increment Finance District (TIF), which meant extra tax dollars to fund new sidewalks, roads and a park. That incentive expired in 2008. Now, Richter is looking for new opportunities to expand the neighborhood’s footprint. But don’t expect a big-box chain store any time soon. Their customers have different needs, and are likely shopping elsewhere in town.
“It’s never been our focus to bring a pharmacy to downtown – that’s not a good fit for that area,” says Richter. “Rather, we’d like to see an extension of the downtown as it expands beyond its existing boundaries. We feel like we have various corridors in town, and downtown is geared toward independent stores and service providers, by virtue of how walkable and scenic it is, and how easy it is to park nearby.”
Party Central in Geneva
Ask out-of-town visitors what brought them back to Geneva, and you’ll hear a common story: They couldn’t see everything on their last visit. Downtown Geneva has more than 200 specialty shops, 50 restaurants and 40 spas, and nearly 1.1 million square feet of retail storefront.
“We really try to maintain the synergies we have, and to encourage the fact that there’s always something to do in Geneva,” says Ellen Divita, director of economic development for the City of Geneva. “We have five major festivals, and a folk festival as well. We have lots of runs and charity walks that pass through downtown, and we encourage businesses not to sell what’s sold down the street.”
Divita and the Geneva Chamber of Commerce maintain an ongoing dialogue with downtown merchants through several “block captains,” or volunteer business owners who represent their neighbors. Businesses are also encouraged to cross-promote each other’s companies and events.
“For example, there’s Geneva Running Outfitters,” says Divita. “They do training runs for the Fox Valley Marathon. So, they’re tying their event into another event, drawing people here beyond that one day, and then sharing goodies from other downtown businesses. They’ll provide bakery items from downtown merchants after the run, and include vouchers or coupons in a goodie bag.”
Downtown Geneva benefits from a busy schedule of downtown festivals, four of which are sponsored and promoted by the Chamber of Commerce. The oldest festival, Swedish Days, has run for 65 years.
“We’re bringing in hundreds of thousands of people who most likely would not be in Geneva during that time,” says Laura Rush, the Chamber’s communications manager. “So, they’re coming and spending money in our businesses – that’s the obvious benefit. But, as we found out, every festival isn’t for every business. Swedish Days is family-oriented and that may not be the demographics you’re looking for. A future festival’s visitors could be more of your clientele. Through our four festivals, the appropriate visitors will discover your business, tell their friends and come back another time.”
To maximize the benefit of festival patrons, Rush encourages tie-ins to the festival, such as creating a parade float for Swedish Days in June, or hosting an activity during the annual Christmas Walk, held just after Thanksgiving.
Downtown Geneva has long been a source of commercial activity, and its main thoroughfare, Illinois Route 38, was part of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway. But downtown changed when county offices and the hospital relocated to Randall Road.
“It took 600 jobs out of downtown, and the resulting business that they brought to it,” says Divita, who’s worked in town for seven years. “For the first six years or so, those workers would come downtown for lunch or quick shopping, but over the past 20 years, we’ve had 1.4 million square feet of retail space built on Randall Road.”
Today, the Geneva Commons shopping center on Randall Road is a major attraction for national chain stores and restaurants, but it fills a different customer niche than downtown. Occasionally the Commons’ restaurants participate in downtown events, such as the Festival of the Vine.
Downtown, the number of restaurants has quadrupled over 10 years. In just two years, the vacancy rate has dropped by half, to just 8 percent. Communication and teamwork are an important part of this recovery, says Divita.
“You need to ask: How are your businesses doing?” says Divita. “You don’t want to be the last ones to know that you’re going to lose them. Also, talk with your property owners, and be sure that they’ll hold out for the right tenants.”
Blooming Opportunities in Elgin
Deirdre White has a tough time finding parking at downtown Elgin’s most popular events. White, director of the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA), considers that a good signal, given the area’s longstanding reputation.
“I’ve been giving a lot of tours this summer, and one of the comments I hear frequently is, ‘I live in Elgin, was raised in Elgin, and still live here, but I haven’t been to downtown in 20 years, and I would never come down here,’” she says. “Now, they can’t believe what it’s like and want to come back.”
What changed? For one, the Grand Victoria Casino and its foundation have helped to reinvigorate the surrounding landscape. For another, Elgin has followed the same Illinois Main Street guidelines that inspired Downtown Crystal Lake. Most importantly, downtown business owners are inspired by a collective can-do attitude.
“The nonprofits in this area have done incredible things to enhance the downtown,” says White, who’s been with DNA for seven years, first as a volunteer and now as director. “There’s an energy when I go to meetings and talk to people down here. Everybody can feel that energy.”
An increasing number of social events are also helping to attract visitors, from small-scale pub crawls that draw 900 people, to the Nightmare on Chicago Street that draws 10,000.
“The streets are closed off, and there are rock bands, incredible shows and everybody’s dressed like a zombie,” says White. “They have cars turned over, fires coming out of garbage cans – it looks like a movie set.”
The arts, too, provide incentive to stay and visit. Downtown restaurants are serving those who attend concerts at the Hemmens Cultural Center, while Elgin Artspace, a live/work center for local artists, provides a starting point for creative expression.
“If you have a vibrant downtown area, people are going to hear about it,” says White. “They’re going to say, ‘Did you see that street performer, or this musical group?’ That will bring people down here.”
A key component of keeping them engaged is improving the business environment. That’s why DNA and the city collaborate on several incentives for new businesses. The most common offer assistance for facade improvements and installing outdoor signage or restaurant kitchen grease traps. As part of these incentive programs, a design committee, made up of city staff, architects, designers and volunteers, streamlines the application process.
“If somebody’s doing a sign, the design committee will make sure all of the specifications are met, so when the application gets to the city, it’s tidy and it can go straight to city council,” says White, who sits on the committee. “We’re working right now on incentives for awning installation, facade improvements and handicap accessibility.”
To be sure, Elgin still has work ahead of it. The neighborhood has a homeless population consistent with other inner cities, says White, and at least 10 percent of downtown storefronts are vacant. But the progress that’s been made couldn’t have happened without the community taking ownership.
“You need to look at yourself and ask whether the downtown stakeholders will take ownership, and if they believe in themselves, or the product they put out,” she says. “Our stakeholders believe in the product of our downtown. When there are naysayers, you have to fight that perception and believe in yourself.”
Serving a Niche in Barrington
Social, active and vibrant is certainly one way to describe the boutique stores and locally owned restaurants that anchor Barrington’s central neighborhood.
Visit on any Thursday evening in summer, and you’ll be among 2,500 people who come to see classic cars, sidewalk sales and farmers markets.
In early summer, nearly 125 artists turn out for the Barrington Art Festival. In fall, downtown is decorated for the annual Scarecrow Fest and Barrington High School homecoming parade. Come December, it’s the starting and ending point for a citywide tree lighting ceremony. Periodic “Wine Walks” also help to attract shoppers.
Partnership is something you’ll see aplenty downtown, where 355 mostly locally owned businesses fill about 868,000 square feet of retail space in charming old storefronts. Once a month, about 40 business owners meet with village leaders over breakfast to work through common issues and develop strategies.
Peggy Blanchard, Barrington’s director of economic and community development, also maintains partnerships outside of town. She networks with economic development officers from surrounding communities and serves as the central division chair of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a national group that pairs up retailers and associated partners.
Blanchard’s connections there have helped to attract new national chains, and they’ve helped Barrington to distinguish itself from its neighbors.
“We’re not going to attract big national companies, because of our proximity to Deer Park and Woodfield Mall,” says Blanchard. “We do find more regional tenants, and the occasional quick-serve national chain. But when it comes to apparel, we like to have these unique stores that are one-of-a-kind.”
Located off U.S. 14, Barrington’s commercial core is largely landlocked, a fact that has long forced the city to stay ahead of market trends. In 1999, the city approved a downtown master plan that began with streetscape improvements and city grants for facade updates. The next year, the city approved a TIF district and a novel zoning ordinance.
“As part of our zoning ordinance, we restricted the first floor of businesses in our core area to retail and personal service businesses only,” says Blanchard. “We require office spaces to be on the second floor, because we want to encourage pedestrian activity and shops on the first floor.”
Downtown currently maintains a 6 percent vacancy rate, but another wave of new businesses is likely to arrive soon, with the construction of the new Barrington Village Center project at Illinois Route 59 and East Main Street. The mixed-use development is expected to add about 25,000 square feet of retail space and 102 public parking spaces.
Blanchard is always open to new incentives for attracting shoppers downtown. A few years ago, she and the downtown merchants saw an opportunity to captivate parents whose children attended activities downtown.
“We put together about 150 gift bags for each of these summer camps, filled with coupons and incentives from our merchants,” says Blanchard. “When they drop their kids off, they receive a little red bag that might encourage them to stay here and keep their shopping dollars here, instead of going to Woodfield Mall or Deer Park.”
Ask around, and you’ll hear plenty of stories of other suburban communities experiencing a resurgence in their downtown neighborhoods – Libertyville, Batavia, Elmhurst, to name a few. Such reawakening is the result of a determined neighborhood and a can-do attitude. Ample patience and time are critically important components.
“I worked in Highland Park when I first started my career, and that’s where I was when they were starting their downtown project,” says Blanchard. “I haven’t worked there for 20 years, but I can go into Highland Park today and see things we talked about at the planning table.”