This past weekend, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my sister and her family. You may recall for a variety of very rational reasons.
Madison’s a town that’s frequently compared to Evanston. They’re both college towns. They’re both situated on lakes. They both have vibrant, intellectual, artistic and vocal populations. Neither town is afraid to show its “funk.”
While walking down Madison’s main drag, I was struck by how similar – and dissimilar – the two towns actually are.
Madison and Evanston both have their share of businesses (the “usual suspects” if you will) which sustain many college towns: Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, Noodles & Company, etc. Madison definitely had far more tattoo parlors and head shops than Evanston, but the thing that truly distinguished them versus us?
Downtown Evanston is fantastic, but has it caught on yet? Do residents -- let alone visitors -- know about it?
Why doesn’t Evanston have a Visitors’ Center?
Yes, I know Madison is Wisconsin's State capitol. Yes, I know Madison's plagued with political nightmares. However...
If I had a dime for every time I’ve been asked the following question by visitors or new residents in Evanston, I’d have enough money to pay my outstanding Evanston street cleaning parking tickets: “So, where’s the downtown in Evanston? Are there really three of them?”
Yes! And so much more! Aren’t we lucky? Not only do we have the Central Street Shops, the Chicago/Dempster Shops, and the Main Street Station Business Area, we’ve also got the shops of Davis Street…and the Noyes Street Shops…and Northwestern University…and did you hear about all our restaurants? And hotels? And the lakefront? And the parks? Have you checked out the architecture? What about all of our museum exhibits (The Block, The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, The American Toby Jug Museum, etc.).
Seeing Madison’s Visitors’ Center right there on the main drag stopped me in my tracks. Why doesn’t Evanston have one?
Think about it. We could staff it with seniors looking for interaction with the public. Or high school kids looking for service hours. Or scout troops hoping to earn badges. Or Northwestern University fraternity/sorority members looking for community project hours.
Yes, a visitors’ center would cost money to build out, but, as demonstrated by countless, enthusiastic Evanston residents lately (see the Library Friends or the West Village Business Association as examples), we’ve got the motivation and the talent to bring it where it’s needed.
It may or may not surprise you, but places like Napa Valley, California are just like us, struggling with empty storefronts and anxious merchants wondering what to do.
Instead of lamenting how down and out our town is, why not celebrate all the greatness we offer? A visitors’ center could offer coupons for restaurants; tours of our unique neighborhoods; folks to answer questions about life in Evanston.
The Evanston Chamber of Commerce is an amazing resource…yet it’s tucked away at 1840 Oak Avenue in the NU/Evanston Research Park where a visitor is not apt to duck in. What about an actual visitors' center in a prominent location, like Fountain Square? Or along Sheridan Road near the lakefront?