The Barrington Area Chamber of Commerce's two Wine Walks last year helped to drive traffic back into downtown merchants – a welcome relief after the challenges they faced during the year.

Barrington Area’s Optimism Flourishes

Even in the worst of times, good things are happening all around us. For the Barrington area, the past year has proven this community’s loyalty, resilience, and commitment to one another.

The Barrington Area Chamber of Commerce’s two Wine Walks last year helped to drive traffic back into downtown merchants – a welcome relief after the challenges they faced during the year.

Businesses big and small have been forced to rethink their strategies over the past year. A slew of ever-changing restrictions, based on ever-changing parameters, has made it all the more challenging.

And in Barrington, which sits right at the juncture of Lake, Cook and McHenry counties, the challenges have been many. It’s apparent right downtown, where County Line Road cuts through the heart of the community, and businesses on one side of the street face different restrictions than their neighbors.

For all of the challenges COVID-19 has wrought, there have been plenty of bright spots, too. In Barrington, residents threw their support to small businesses, frequented local restaurants and came out for community events – even if things looked a little different than usual.

So, how are Barrington-area businesses adjusting to this new normal, and what do they see for the year ahead? We sat down with Suzanne Corr, President/CEO of the Barrington Area Chamber of Commerce, and Melanie Marcordes, assistant to the village manager in Barrington, as we examined how this community is facing new challenges and coming out on top.

The Challenge of a Lifetime

Suzanne Corr has a special perch over the Barrington area. Her organization includes Barrington and many of its neighbors, from tiny Tower Lakes to quiet Barrington Hills, busy South Barrington and Deer Park. To her mind, the biggest takeaway from 2020 is a renewed sense of optimism.

How has the Barrington area been affected by the pandemic?
The Barrington Area Chamber covers 11 communities, and all were impacted similarly. Our frontline workers were brave, exhausted and overworked. Our Main Street retailers and many of our business categories were really in survival mode.

Suzanne Corr, Barrington Area Chamber of Commerce

Adaptation was a pretty common theme last year. How are your members changing?
I think the pandemic created a situation where many opportunities were lost but many opportunities were gained. I think our members were determined to find different ways to do business or use their resources.
Restaurants in general had to get creative. They had to pivot to curbside pickup and takeout, and some focused on creating wholesome family experiences. Neoteca started putting together pizza kits you could take home, make and customize with your kids. It created a dining experience built on Neoteca’s great food.

Small retailers created virtual shopping and boutique shop hops on social media. Local salons reconfigured their spaces for safety and texted clientele before their appointments. Remote working, consulting and event fitness took over.

Last year was the biggest challenge of a lifetime, but we found if you unite and work together you could achieve anything. Adversity brings opportunity.

So, what lessons do you think have come out of this experience?
The pandemic has showed us the character that defines the Barrington area: our commitment to our community, our generosity and our commitment to one another. When everything got shut down, we all went into overdrive to help one another.

As soon as the pandemic hit and it was clear our frontline workers were going to be tapped to the extremes, a group called Shepherd’s Circle organized and delivered meals to frontline workers. Not only did they do a wonderful thing making these workers feel appreciated, but it also made a difference for local restaurants that were shut down and unable to do business as normal.

Our community leaders also established the Barrington Area COVID Relief Fund. Talk about a shining moment. Our leaders got together and realized that the services of our nonprofits would be needed more than ever, but they had lost so many opportunities for fundraising because all of their events were cancelled. The relief fund awarded grants so these nonprofits could continue to operate and provide important social services.

Businesses in our community got so creative. Barrington Transportation Company had buses and employees who normally spend their days delivering children to school and were no longer needed. So, they used their buses to deliver meals to needy families. That was an incredible way to serve the community and use resources and keep your staff at work.

The Chamber realized it was an important focal point for local business. We became a clearinghouse, weeding through the constantly changing flood of information. It changed so quickly, and it was overwhelming. So, we focused in on the things our members needed to survive.

We came together as a community and realized what’s most important to us. We realized we’re not alone and we focused on helping others.

In what ways do you think the Chamber has adapted?
The at-home mandate really required us to have a complete shift in how we did business. I feel like the Chamber was truly needed more than ever, because we brought people together, we’ve kept them informed, we’ve done virtual and hybrid programming. We offered virtual coffee breaks, virtual happy hours, virtual industry-specific gatherings. We brought restaurants and nonprofits together virtually to see that they were not alone and to share resources, share experiences, share problems, get ideas on how to solve problems. One member told me, ‘When the pandemic first hit, I felt so hopeless, but I feel like the Chamber has been holding my hand through it.’ That’s exactly what we did.

We actually pulled off two Wine Walk events, one in July and one in October, and we did it with a lot of safety precautions in place. Bringing people to the community results in sales receipts from shopping and dining. These events led to money spent in our community at a time when our local merchants needed the support more than ever.

We kicked off a holiday windows display campaign, because we realized that families needed wholesome things to do together. We teamed up with the Barrington Area Artists Association and got about 50 of our downtown merchants to commit to decorating their windows. Around Thanksgiving, we had our local artists hit the streets with their paint and brushes, and they created wonderful window art that included elves. It was such a cheerful contribution, and for the people who were driving down the street, it made them stop and wave. It excited merchants and got their minds off the heavy weight of the pandemic. It united us in a special way. It’s definitely a keeper.

We did do a one-day holiday walk, which resulted in about 100 people coming into downtown, and they could walk around with music in the streets and do some holiday shopping. It was a moment of normalcy. That’s the kind of thing families love to do.

What have been some of the biggest challenges for your members?
I think the reality is that the pandemic is not really going away as easily as we’d like. It’s going to affect the way we live for some time, so we have to find ways to live, learn and connect amongst it. The biggest challenge is that our members have to make up for lost income and the cost of making changes. They have to take a critical look at how they do business and focus on what’s most effective for growth.

I think we should all be proud of what we accomplished in the past year, and it gives us confidence we can make it.

We had a lot of events we had to cancel, but then we had virtual opportunities to connect. At first, you could hear the fear in their voices. You could see the depression and disbelief. But the more we got together and the more we heard about someone figuring out a way to change the way they do business, it got people optimistic, and it encouraged more people to be innovative. In time our virtual gatherings just got more and more positive.

We all saw we could do it. For some, these virtual gatherings at first were awkward, but they have proved to still be effective at building relationships.

How are your members feeling about the year ahead?
I just got off a meeting with 15-plus members and I asked, ‘What is the one word that defines how you look at this year?’ They said hope, optimism, relentlessness. We are hopeful, and we are going to be resilient and we are going to continue to innovate, pivot, switch and adapt. We all learned how resilient we can be.

We can wipe the slate clean and innovate. Don’t ever define what you do by saying that’s the way it’s always been done, because we’ve learned we can change.

We are all feeling hopeful about the opening up of our communities. In another month we’re going to introduce some in-person events. When I meet with members, I ask who’s ready to come back to do an in-person event. No matter what you do, you get about half and half. I think we have to understand that we’ll continue to offer virtual, hybrid and in-person events because our membership has different levels of comfort. Right now it’s down the middle.

That being said, we’re planning new events for the year, including the Classic Car Collectors Car Show on June 26. It brings together local collectors and benefits small businesses. On July 22, we’ll have Just Stepping Out Girls Night Out, an evening of girlfriends and preview shopping at Barrington’s Sizzling Sale Days. Then, we’ll have the Family Health and Fitness Expo at Citizens Park on Aug. 21. We’re planning Wine Walks downtown for May 8 and Oct. 9.

What is your single biggest hope for the year?
That we reconnect. And we remain hopeful and optimistic. That we understand how much we all mean to one another and we understand how important our communities are. What was amazing was the loyalty of our community. You had people being very loyal to the restaurants they liked to frequent. They would order maybe once a week, and they would make a point of leaving, in some instances, astronomical tips to take care of the staff who were used to serving them. Those are just amazing examples of loyalty, compassion and generosity.
It doesn’t matter that so many things never happened and were cancelled. This has been such a tremendous opportunity to create. When you look at it that way, it is easier to accept that we can’t do things the way we have done them before and feel blessed that you have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and come up with new ideas. I think that’s how everyone should approach this year.

Local artists decorated downtown windows with elves and other holiday imagery in late 2020 as part of a campaign to keep families entertained. (Barrington Area Chamber photo)

A Helping Hand

Melanie Marcordes serves as assistant to Barrington’s village manager, but she wears plenty of other titles, too, including deputy village clerk and liaison to local businesses. In her work to help retain the village’s small businesses, she’s spent the past year providing a helping hand to those who are struggling to stay afloat. She’s eager to remain nimble throughout the coming year.

From your perspective, how has the Barrington area been affected by the pandemic?
I don’t think we’ll know the full impact on businesses until after the pandemic is over, because it’s continually changing and it’s continually requiring businesses to change their business model.

I think there’s been a lot of help with property owners relaxing rent payments, but what happens when property owners are not in a position to still provide assistance?

From a municipal perspective, we’ve relaxed and waived fees all through 2020 and into this year, but I don’t know how much that helps. In going forward, our business owners will have more certainty once they see a regular flow of people coming into their businesses. When that starts happening, I think we’ll know what businesses were able to survive and thrive.

Melanie Marcordes, Village of Barrington

Can you give us a sense of some of the bright spots you see in the community?
The great thing is that our community is very philanthropic, and our residents demonstrate a lot of ingenuity.
They’re really very local-focused and always have been. When ‘shop local’ promotions popped up, people in Barrington were already on board. We don’t have a lot of national chains. I think our businesses have done well, because people are already supporting them.

We haven’t had large closings, and I think that’s telling of the support system our local businesses have. And I think some of the restaurants have changed their business models. For example, Region has done a phenomenal job of changing their whole business model to provide high-end meals to go. PL8, also located in the Foundry, has done the same thing. Even when they could re-open they kept up their to-go operations.

The Chamber of Commerce has done wonderfully this past year. They hosted several Wine Walks, and we thought, ‘How can you have a socially distanced Wine Walk?’ They worked through it with all of the businesses, and they had a great success.

You hear a lot about reimagined events, but I don’t necessarily think re-imagined events are going anywhere. We’ve done parking lot concerts and reimagined parades, and I think all of those things are probably going to be part of reimagined future events.

And, on top of it, wasn’t the Village’s sales tax income through the first three quarters of 2020 roughly the same as the year before?
We’re still in a pretty decent position with our sales tax, and I have to attribute that to our auto sales last year. I think that was very helpful. We did enter into an agreement with MotorWerks with an 8.5-acre expansion of its property. Part of that is to provide enough land for a potential relocation of its Cadillac brand into the MotorWerks location on the south side of town. And then we also brought in Des Plaines Honda and offered a sales tax agreement with them, so they’ll get some relief.

In what ways has the Village government adapted?
We seamlessly changed our services to provide them remotely, which we had never really done before. We’ve continued to provide services to residents. We went to online permitting and offered payment processes to residents and businesses. We established weekly and as-needed communications to both our residents and our businesses to keep them informed on what’s going on. We worked with restaurants to establish outdoor dining protocols. We closed Park Avenue for the entire season to allow restaurants to remain open. They probably would have been closed had we not done that. We relaxed parking requirements for a lot of businesses so they could utilize their own parking areas for outdoor dining.

We installed benches and bike racks downtown. We already had some, but because there were so many people outside walking, we installed more to enhance that experience. We did an online coupon book and established a new business portal on our website, so people could see who’s open, what their special hours were and what they were offering. The whole thing began when we asked, ‘Isn’t there something we can send out so people know our businesses are open?’ We sent an email to our businesses and said, if you want something please submit it to us and we will send it out to all residents. It happened in a week. It was that quick, and it became a regular thing. It’s one of those things that won’t be going away.

What else has the Village been working on?
Just this year we did a strategic plan. It’s been 20 years since we last did one, and the capital improvement plan was just approved by the board. Those two plans provide the board an avenue to prioritize and budget for capital projects. We know roads are important. We know sidewalks are important. We know there are big projects, but the board never really had a way to organize their priorities. We did a workshop with just the board, so they could walk through what’s important to them and see how each aligned with other board members. We’re still in the process of doing the comprehensive plan, but that’s a longer-term document. We’ll take the strategic goals the board already came up with and establish guidelines from a planning perspective on how to continue to focus any new projects.

It’s another tool the board has to say, ‘If we really believe these are our priorities, then this is how we need to move forward with these projects.’ The comprehensive plan has been a yearlong project. They had to postpone some of their neighborhood meetings due to COVID because that involved all of the neighborhoods coming in and talking about their issues and priorities. I believe the comprehensive plan will be approved in April. We’ll have a path to prioritize projects and find funding for them.

Barrington’s cultural scene slowed down but never really stopped last year. In what ways are we seeing these community events staying relevant to local residents?
Barrington’s White House and Barrington’s cultural commission have worked really hard this year to provide cultural events remotely. The White House has been providing really great events, including a jazz caberet series, and people are buying tickets just to watch online. We just hosted our Barrington Town Warming with Bill Daley and Condoleezza Rice, and that was all done remotely.

The farmers market is still operating. They had to change the model so they had more space and people could be socially distant.

There are so many positive things happening in Barrington, but challenges still remain. What does your team see as some of the biggest hurdles?
I think our biggest challenge right now is the unknown. It’s the fact that we really don’t know what the effect of the pandemic will be in the long run, in terms of how it might change the office landscape or commuter behaviors, and will they be comfortable or will they even need to go back into the city? People’s willingness to go back to indoor dining. We’ll continue to do what we’re doing and monitor what’s happening. We’ll keep our business owners engaged and communicate with them often so that we know their issues. As they understand what changes and what impacts are happening in their industry they’ll be able to communicate with us so we can address what they need.

What do you think are some of the most important lessons to come out of this experience?
“I think we’ve learned we are more innovative and more resilient and more flexible than we ever knew. We established an intergovernmental agreement with Palatine to provide forestry services. Last year, our longtime forester retired and it was like, ‘Allright, what do we do?’ We knew Palatine had someone we might be able to use, so we figured out an arrangement.

The same happened with Fox River Grove. We did a shared purchase of a public works vehicle that we wouldn’t use daily and Fox River Grove wouldn’t use daily. It’s been a huge cost-savings on both of our parts. We’ve always had intergovernmental agreements with other fire departments, but this experience has allowed us to ask, ‘Why can’t we do that outside our public safety? How can we do this in other areas?’

What is your biggest hope for the year ahead?
We’ll continue on the same path we’re on. I don’t mean that in the sense that we’re still in a pandemic. I mean that we really have been very resilient, flexible and innovative, and my hope is we can continue that path, and whatever the new normal will look like will be even better than what the old normal was.