Last week, I wrote about how Evanston’s west side appears to languish behind the rest of the city. This week, I wanted to get some answers. So I met with City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and economic development planner Paul Zalmezak. Here's a summary of our conversation.
Did Dominick’s prevent Planet Fitness from locating at Evanston Plaza? I hear the grocery store has a right to refuse certain properties there.
I’m here to tell you: Dominick’s didn’t force Planet Fitness out of Evanston Plaza. According to Bobkiewicz, Planet Fitness changed its mind and went to Main Street Commons—although the grocery store does indeed have a lease giving it first right of refusal for many types of properties, including other food stores and businesses that take up too much parking space (insert eyes rolling to the back of skull here).
Apparently, Planet Fitness had hoped to open two Planet Fitness locations in Evanston, one in Evanston Plaza and one elsewhere. Bobkiewicz says the city reached out to Dominick's/Safeway to help the deal go through, and whenBonnie Investment Group approached Dominick's for the Planet Fitness deal, Dominick's gave the O.K.; then Planet Fitness changed it's mind.
The city manager maintains that the Safeway-owned grocery chain has a dying business model, however, and city staff are preparing for the possibility that it may eventually close, leaving a large vacancy at Evanston Plaza.
"The city wants to be ready when change comes...so we won't have to borrow," Bobkiewicz says. Thus aldermen passed a tax-increment financing district at Evanston Plaza — the first TIF presented since the recession.
Why doesn’t the city consider hiring a business strategist to market/rebrand the area?
"We're willing to be helpful if [an established group] commits," says Bobkiewiecz. But, he adds, "We're not in a position to bankroll, nor do we want to presuppose what businesses want." He says other Evanston business associations have attracted in-kind contributions and efforts to their revitalization efforts., citing examples like food truck events.
What is the plan for the Bonnie Investment Group, which owns Evanston Plaza, to access the TIF funds for improvement of this half-dead plaza?
Bobkiewicz says one current tenant in the plaza hopes to expand and that Bonnie is trying to bring in another tenant. There are $2 million in accessible funds to be used in the first 7 years -- between now and when the Dominick's lease is up.
"Part of the rub is the community sees the TIF and is frustrated," Bobkiewicz adds.
What's also difficult, Bobkiewicz and Zalmezak explain, is attracting businesses who want to be here.
"Your market has to be within a five-mile radius," Zalmezak says. And unfortunately, potential businesses often see the north west side of Chicago and Lincolnwood Town Center as competing forces with Evanston Plaza.
What happened to the West Village Business Association that sponsored the "Making it Happen" event at the plaza in May 2011?
As this column goes online, Evanston West Village Business Association’s Facebook page appears sluggish, and its website has only posted and promoted a few events. The truth is, the association’s still in its infancy, and it’ll take a lot of work and commitment to get the word out.
“We’ve supported [the association] as a staff,” Zalmezak says, adding, “…there’s nobody leading it now. The founder left the area. Since then, there’s no critical mass.”
Bobkiewicz says the city is happy to provide support, but needs direction from the business owners themselves. “We don’t manage business associations. That’s not what we’re here to do.”
The city does provide some limited financial aid for businesses to make improvements. Additionally, other neighborhoods have maximized their economic vitality with active associations, including Chicago-Dempster Merchant Association, Central Street Business Association and the Main Street Station Merchants Association.
My Takeaways From Our Conversation:
Here's what I concluded. If you’re looking to establish a business on the West Side of Evanston, step right up, but first put on your thinking cap:
- We’ve got a West Evanston TIF (District #6)…
- We’ve got Evanston’s WestEnd district; most (but not all) of this area’s included in the #6 TIF…
- We’ve got the Dempster Dodge TIF (#7) covering the nearly vacant Evanston Plaza (and the perception that Dominick’s is the devil for staving off any new businesses).
- We’ve got the newly branded West Village, supposedly run by the Evanston West Village Business Association begging for city help (yet no discernable leadership at the moment)…
- Don’t forget about the West Evanston Master Plan!
- We’ve got a vacant former KFC building at Dempster & Dodge, owned by Yum! Brands which essentially won’t allow anyone to buy the building that competes with KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell or Wing Street…
So, all you potential businesses looking to come to the West Side, just give us a second. We’re still trying to sort things out.
Last Week: What's the Story With Evanston's West Side?