The road back to “normal” is already looking promising for Batavia and Lake Zurich, where new projects, new businesses and new ideas are flourishing on the heels of COVID-19’s destruction.
For more than a year, most people have been ready to “get back to normal.” The reality, though, is that our experience with COVID-19 has changed our ways of doing business – often for the better.
As things start returning to a new normal and crowds once again return to dining rooms, festivals and other public gatherings, our local businesses are taking advantage of the lessons they learned since last March, when things abruptly ground to a halt.
For leaders in Batavia and the Lake Zurich area, an enduring spirit of community is leading to surprising new results in this post-pandemic environment.
What’s New in Batavia
If there’s one thing the past year proved about Batavia, it’s the strength of this community and its residents’ ability to collaborate. From the start of the pandemic, critical partners have banded together with small businesses to keep the economy rolling.
Signs of optimism and excitement abound in this community of 26,250, and the feeling is especially palpable in the downtown business district, where new businesses are popping up, and local institutions like the Batavia Chamber of Commerce are providing a helpful boost.
“Our businesses really banded together to help each other,” says Margaret Perreault, president and CEO. “Our community came together to make sure our businesses didn’t close. We supported them, and we gave them a lot of visibility. Batavia really is a different community, and there’s a feeling that we’re all in this together. We want to protect our special little community, so we’ll do all we can.”
Indeed, the Chamber has been an active partner over the past 18 months, as the city flourishes with new opportunities.
At the corner of Wilson and River streets downtown, a once-vacant plat of asphalt is teeming with new life as The Boardwalk Shops. Ten shed-like buildings now house small businesses selling everything from home decor to baked goods, flowers and body care products. Developed before COVID, the structures were half-built by a trades class at the local high school before things completely shut down last March. Volunteers rallied together to finish construction before the grand opening last May.
“They were a smashing success, despite the pandemic,” says Perreault. Of the eight shops that signed on for a one-year contract last year, six have moved on to more permanent brick-and-mortar storefronts in town, with several collaborating to fill a long-empty space. “These shops are going to be a tourist destination for people to come from all over and visit the retailers and restaurants we have downtown.”
As an added incentive, a portion of River Street was closed off for pedestrian traffic again this season. Large planters and picnic tables make this block-long area a casual place to enjoy a meal or a summer festival – and many postponed festivals are coming back. The Windmill City Fest, the River Street block party and a chili cook-off are all scheduled for late this summer.
Based on last summer’s success with the closed-off River Street, a block on Water Street, east of the Fox River, has been closed off for pedestrian traffic and community events. Picnic tables provide a place to enjoy a carry-out meal, and periodic programming helps to keep the crowds coming.
“We know that, when people come down here, they support our local businesses,” says Perreault. “So, they can order food at our local businesses and go sit at the picnic tables. That came out because indoor dining was not allowed last year, but now we get the benefits of continuing this new tradition. It’s like we found a new meeting space.”
New restaurants are popping up, as well. WindMill Grille downtown opened last year after transplanting from another community. Out on Randall Road, a new barbecue place, Doc Watson’s Smokehouse, has opened a second location.
While the Chamber has always been a resource for local businesses, this past year has brought a flourish of innovation to the way it supports entrepreneurs in 23 local ZIP codes.
Early into last spring’s shutdowns, the Chamber team took its networking events online and began communicating with local restaurants to promote their adjusted menus. Indeed, communication was a constant last year, as the Chamber shared resources and information between local businesses and the community at large. Perreault says it wasn’t unusual to hear from members that they never would have known their options without the extra boost.
“What was required from us during the pandemic was definitely different from what’s required from us during typical times,” says Perreault. “So, I think our members felt a sense of community coming to the Chamber and sharing whatever knowledge and resources we had. We all helped each other.”
The new Chamber Bucks program helps to further spread the love while keeping dollars local. Launched last year, the program offers a gift certificate that can be used at participating businesses.
“We doubled whatever you paid, so if you came in and bought $50, we would give you a $100 gift certificate,” says Perreault. “So, we were spending money out of our budget and getting it into our businesses. That was a well-received program. We were very proud with that.”
The challenges of this past year have also exposed weaknesses for many an entrepreneur, so Perreault and her team are testing new ways of educating their members on strategies for success. Last year’s Better Business Builder series provided quick courses on topics like marketing and accounting. Perreault hopes to build off those boot camp sessions with deeper-level education programs starting this fall.
“They’ll know how to keep up to date with their financials, to be prepared for anything and be able to give a report to see if they’re financially successful or not,” she says. “We’re going to give them training, too, into marketing and inventory control, and all different areas of their company. A lot of small businesses just go into it because they’re really good at one thing and have a passion for it, but they don’t realize how many other things matter to making a business run.”
For all of the positive news in town, Perreault also sees challenges in the coming months – and labor force is top of mind for many of her members.
“Some have had to cut their hours because there aren’t enough employees to cover the register for them to stay open,” she says.
The consensus opinion, she says, is that some people are scared they might contract COVID on the job, and others feel they’re doing better with stimulus cash and unemployment benefits. Still others have decided to go into business for themselves.
“They don’t feel they need to run out and get a job right now,” Perreault explains. “But there’s also, because of the shutdown, some believe that if we did shut down again, anybody who goes back to a restaurant may lose their job again. I think a lot of those employees have gone on and found other positions.”
She’s also heard from businesses that are inundated with job applications, only to start scheduling interviews and find the candidates won’t respond. In some cases, she’s heard of businesses, including some local manufacturers, offering incentives to people who interview and take the job. The key is to be creative in your approach.
“We went down to Limestone Coffee & Tea, and the owner there said she gets applications all the time,” says Perreault. “She’s fully staffed, but she said it’s cool to work at a coffee house. So, if you can give a little charm or swag to your work, that seems to help.”
At the same time, she sees a strong benefit in minding your finances carefully during uncertain times. Business owners who have their books in order will be better positioned in the long run.
“You need to have that six-month to a year cushion if you can,” she says. “If there is funding from the state, the federal, local or county government you’ll be ready to go after it. I think a lot of people didn’t stay informed and didn’t realize how critical it is to getting funding.”
For now, there’s growing enthusiasm in the community about the months ahead, and it’s driven in many ways by the lessons learned with COVID.
“We had weekly meetings with the city, the park district, the library, the Main Street downtown organization and the Chamber. We would meet weekly to say, ‘What’s going on and what can we do?’” says Perreault. “I think those partnerships were strong before, but I think they’re even stronger now, and I think that will help us into the future. It’s taught us to come up with new ideas and find collaborative ways to be there for each other.”
What’s New in Lake Zurich
There’s a palpable excitement around Lake Zurich and its surrounding communities as businesses fully reopen, community events return and a sense of “normal” steadily returns.
“Residents and business owners alike are moving around more at ease and excited about getting back to normal,” says Claire Slattery, president and CEO of the Lake Zurich Area Chamber of Commerce. “They’re excited to regain some losses.”
Several construction projects remain in the works, the most notable centered at Old Rand and U.S. Route 12, where a Life Time Fitness is under development. Construction is finally underway, since COVID-19 mitigations forced health clubs across the country to close their doors.
National homebuilder Ryan Homes is planning to build nine townhouses on 3.3 acres south of downtown. These 38 units are expected to run from the high $200,000s to the mid-$300,000s. A model home is under construction, with plans to open sales and construction on the rest of the property as early as this fall.
Meanwhile, crews are putting the finishing touches on the new May Whitney Elementary School, which replaces a building by the same name that was more than 90 years old. The new school is energy efficient, uses geothermal heating and cooling, accommodates more than 500 preschool through fifth-grade students in innovative learning and collaboration spaces, says Jean Malek, executive director of communications for Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95. Other schools in the district will be unveiling significant upgrades, including state-of-the-art STEAM/library spaces. Seth Paine Elementary, in particular, will receive an ADA-accessible cafeteria, band room and library/STEAM space.
Chamber-sponsored events are returning soon, too, with a community expo returning in July, Taste of the Towns returning in August and a job fair returning in September.
Perhaps the biggest news for Chamber members is the level of innovation they’ve attained during the past year. Across Lake Zurich, Hawthorne Woods, Long Grove, Kildeer and Deer Park, small businesses are finding new ways to collaborate while promoting their products and services.
Slattery says she’s seen restaurants building patios to capture more outdoor dining, and plenty of other businesses are cross-promoting their offerings. In one case, Copper Fiddle Distillery partnered with Mr. Tux Formal Wear, and The Gents Place, an upscale men’s hair salon, to provide a promotional guys-only experience.
“Cross Kicks Fitness also partnered with The Hungry Mule, a restaurant,” says Slattery. “So, a fitness place partners with a food place to have an event they call Barbells & Beer. How cool, right? That kind of stuff is really innovative.”
At a more basic level, she’s also seeing events like ribbon cuttings become a broader promotional event.
“Sage Elite studios is in Kildeer, and they opened around the COVID lockdown, so they held off on the traditional ribbon cutting,” Slattery says. “As she was looking toward the summer, the business owner said, ‘We want a ribbon cutting, but we want to involve the whole corridor,’ because she’s located around Best Buy. She invited all of those businesses to do a block party. You can see the theme is businesses collaborating with each other to yield a greater exposure.”
In many ways, the Chamber, too, is pursuing new avenues. When local businesses struggled to recover from lockdowns last spring, Slattery and the Chamber became a critical resource for members and a promoter for the wider community.
“It wasn’t just about our members, because we learned that, while they’re supporting the Chamber financially, we represent the business community as a whole,” she says. “So, when we went out to do something promotional and we’d ask, ‘Where can we eat outside because you couldn’t go inside,’ we didn’t just talk about our members. We talked about any restaurant. It was very necessary to show the love across the entire business community.”
When in-person networking events weren’t possible, Slattery and her team took the party to member businesses with a “cash mob” that targeted local businesses. The pilot event, aimed at a boutique in Long Grove, was a big hit.
“We raised more than a thousand dollars for the owner,” Slattery says. “But, the best result was people saying, ‘I didn’t even realize this was here. This is such a cute store.’ You have to keep inventing and being innovative because everyone has a need that we can support.”
Now, members can join in the Biz Bucks program, which uses a prepaid Mastercard that’s good at any participating locally owned business. Not only does it encourage people to focus more on locally owned businesses – as opposed to shopping on Amazon – but it also uses subtle nudges, like an email receipt and text reminders, to suggest other places where the card is good.
“We have a big manufacturing park, and we’ve seen people use it for employee incentives,” says Slattery. “It gets them out into the community, even if they don’t necessarily live here. But it gets them out for a meal or shopping on their lunch hour. So, we believe that’s helpful.”
For all of the invention that’s already happened, Slattery sees signals that there’s still room for improvement. In particular, she hears from local businesses that there’s a dire need to fill empty positions, but it’s hard to find the right person.
“It has a major impact, because if you don’t have enough staff you can’t deliver the same service, or you may have to limit your hours,” says Slattery. “That obviously hurts their bottom line.”
And, just to complicate things, changes to Illinois’ minimum wage law will require business owners to plan carefully for the next few years, as the minimum wage steadily climbs to $15 per hour. Ultimately, it’ll affect not only the lowest earners, because there’s a trickle up effect, Slattery says.
“If minimum wage becomes $15, then people who are already making that and think they’re getting a good deal will want more,” she adds. “So, you need to figure out how you’re going to budget for that over time. Is it going to involve raising your prices or being more efficient with your services? We’re working on an educational event in the fall to help business owners with this issue, but it’s something to be aware of right now.”
At the same time, Slattery believes a good dose of transparency is in order, too. Although COVID mitigations are widely lifted across Illinois, certain rules are still in effect, particularly when it comes to wearing masks in public spaces. When those rules are posted at a business entrance, it sets a clear expectation before someone walks in the door.
“Are they mandatory in your place of business? What are your rules? Even though we’re open, if you go into some places, like a day care, you have to mask,” says Slattery. “But if I go in and I don’t know, then I’m wondering, should I be wearing one? It can become an issue for store owners.”
For many local businesses, lifted restrictions mean a return to the sorts of services that truly distinguish themselves from competitors – and that’s a breath of fresh air for many in the northwest suburbs.
“When you talk about a return to normalcy and what has members excited, you have to look, for example, at hotels that are now being able to offer their amenities once more,” says Slattery. “They have their shuttle service back for guests, they can open their pools, open their fitness clubs. I think that having that back is super exciting for them. Amenities is a good word to use. Opening, for every small business, is about an opening of amenities.”
Things to Watch
Though you’ll find optimism in abundance this summer, small businesses should still be mindful of challenges ahead. Margaret Perreault, of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce, and Claire Slattery, of the Lake Zurich Area Chamber of Commerce, offered a few ideas on what to watch in the coming months.
Although state mandates are largely lifted, they do remain in place for some businesses, and rules around mask wearing are still widely uneven. Convey your expectations to customers by posting a sign at the front door, says Slattery. “Be very transparent, and that will avoid any confusion or problems,” she says.
It’s an employee’s market, and people are being much more selective about where they work. Be prepared to process more applications than usual; try offering incentives that will attract talented people. “I’ve heard of places coming up with lots of new ideas, like offering scholarships if you stay there awhile. They’ll pay for you to go back to school.” says Perreault. “You have to come up with creative new ideas.”
As Illinois’ mandated minimum wage increases again this year, on a steady track toward $15 an hour by Jan. 1 2025, business owners should be ready for this law’s impact on the bottom line. “This is definitely something to focus on, because it’s going to change your accounting,” Slattery says. “It’s not just about the increase in starting wages, but the trickle-up to managers and everyone else on your payroll.”
Get Your Books in Order
The pandemic and its resulting financial challenges exposed some business owners’ informal accounting methods. Formalize your procedures and be prepared to report your financial statements when called upon, says Perreault. It’s a necessity for emergency assistance and other sources of funding.“There are funding opportunities even outside the pandemic-related assistance,” she adds. “Keep your books up to date. That’s critical. So many businesses weren’t prepared to apply for emergency pandemic funding because they hadn’t kept their financials in order. We had people coming in here with a shoebox of receipts to apply for funding or get reimbursements.”