Evanston needs to get better at telling prospective employers why it’s a great city to work in, beef up its web presence and improve outreach with commercial real estate brokers and entrepreneurs.
This was the message delivered by three Kellogg Graduate School of Management students earlier this week who conducted a study for the city on how to develop more commercial real estate.
Evanston has about 90 percent occupancy rates in its big office buildings, the study showed. This means that it’s time to start building new space. The students looked at specific spots in town that they said were ripe for development, including a vacant lot on Davis Street in the heart of downtown and the ’s parking lot.
“Evanston has underdeveloped or undeveloped parcels of land in the city that the city would like to develop,” explained Ben Wilmoth, one of the three presenters. A fourth student who worked on the project did not attend. The primary goal of development, Wilmoth said, is to increase the property tax rolls and spur new job growth. (You can watch the full presentation by clicking on the video link above.)
The study was commissioned by Evanston Inventure, an economic development nonprofit. About 25 city people attended.
The students broke their recommendations down into the following four categories:
Target a specific kind of company to attract
Evanston doesn’t need to attract all people, just the right people.
“It’s a bit like finding a spouse,” said presenter Kevin Heckman. You want someone who admires your strengths and isn’t bothered by your flaws.
So the city shouldn’t look to draw companies that need easy access to the airport, he said. Instead, they should play up the educated talent pool that lives along the city’s Red Line, as well as its easy access from the rest of the North Shore.
Evanston should also stress its ideal train access — only five stations in the Chicago area have both CTA and Metra access, and Evanston houses two of them. Plus it has an intellectual college town feel and you can easily walk to restaurants or shops from work.
“Nobody else can make these same claims,” said presenter Kevin Bell, referring in particular to the office space hubs of the West Loop, Skokie and Northbrook.
Improve marketing efforts
The city needs to focus its marketing outreach efforts, both online and in person, the group said.
An improved website that delivers a clear pitch as to what makes Evanston great is key, they said, as well as using and frequently updating various social media tools. This will promote the city as both accessible and tech-savvy.
The group also encouraged officials to court commercial brokers by organizing events like golf outings or meals.
“Brokers do not tend to think a lot about Evanston when they’re talking to their clients,” Heckman said.
This struck a chord with Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, who attended the presentation.
“It’s so obvious but I never thought of it,” she said after the talk.
She said the city will also take a look at ways to improve its website.
Develop grassroots demand
Entrepreneurs need to be drawn to Evanston and want to start their businesses here, the group said.
One goal would be to add new incubators that focus on a specific industry. The group cited Cambridge, MA’s successful focus on biotechnology as a model. It’s also important to know when to move start-ups out of the incubator, they said.
The city should also develop relationships with venture capital firms in the area, which are an important part of a vibrant start-up community.
Be poised to develop big sites
It’s tricky for many reasons to develop big buildings.
So the group recommended focusing in the meantime on buildings in the 50,000-60,000-square-foot range that don’t need a huge anchor tenant in order to get financing and can support companies that need less than 5,000 square feet of space, which is where the majority of current tenants are at.
This smaller-scale focus will help prepare the city for the arrival of a bigger potential development. In addition, the city should streamline the development process and do some advance work on big sites such as conducting environmental impact studies so they’re already done when an interested developer comes knocking.
Stay connected; like Evanston Patch on Facebook.