By Bob Seidenberg
Evanston officials moved forward this week on a proposal that would recognize the special character of longstanding businesses and fashion a program to help ensure they remain in the city.
Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) strongly backed city staff’s proposal at their May 31 meeting to create a Legacy Business Program to help retain long-standing Evanston businesses.
City Economic Development officials have long stressed the importance of retaining existing businesses as an important if sometimes overlooked element of the city’s economic development strategy.
“Preserving our small businesses is critical to maintaining Evanston’s unique character and cultural identity. In addition to contributing to Evanston’s business district’s vitality, they provide employment opportunities and help create a sense of place for local residents,” wrote city Economic Development specialists Katheryn Boden in a May 25 memo to the Committee.
“So much attention is focused on new business openings and attracting new businesses to fill vacant spaces,” she said, “we often fail to direct attention to the businesses that have spent a great deal of time and financial resources to remain relevant in an increasingly competitive retail environment, particularly in the wake of the pandemic and growth of e-commerce.”
Programs established by other cities include grants, technical assistance and other marketing and branding services, she noted.
San Francisco’s Legacy Preservation Fund, the first of its kind, she wrote, offers annual grants to the businesses which make up their registry (up to 300 of them) of $500 per employee, as well as issuing a $4.50 per square foot grant to property owners who extend 10-year leases to tenants.
Grants are up to $50,000 per business and $22,500 for property owners, according to the staff memo. Since its inception, the program has helped more than 230 businesses and nonprofits, Biden noted.
Establishing a registry
For Evanston, officials are proposing the city set criteria a business would have to meet to qualify as a Legacy Business.
The designation could apply to “local businesses that have been long-standing pillars of our community and encourage their continued vitality and success,” staff wrote in the memo.
Some of the criteria such a business might have to meet under the program include ten to more than 30 years of business in Evanston, a contribution to the architectural or cultural identity of the city or the neighborhood where they are located, a commitment to “maintaining the physical features or traditions that define the business,” staff suggested.
Under the program, a Legacy Business Registry would be established that formally recognizes businesses contribution to the city.
The proposed program could include a dedicated website with a business guide and the featured businesses, city recognition —such as a plaque, branding, window decal, an announcement from the Mayor, calling attention to the business.
Grants could run up to $25,000 per business, or $10,000 per property owner, officials suggested.
The program would be paid for out of the city’s Business District Improvement account, which currently has a balance of roughly $160,000.
Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd, suggested officials try to assist as many businesses as possible, at the same time “recognizing that too little money doesn’t give them a boost.”
The city might aim for a “sweet spot,” where enough money is given out to help a business, yet reserving sufficient funds so other businesses will get a slice of the pie, she said.
Council member Clare Kelly, 1st, a lifelong resident of Evanston, spoke of “the deep value of our legacy businesses, naming Hecky’s, the Mexican Shop, Dave’s Down to Earth Rock Shop, D&D Foods, and saying she could “go on and on”
The businesses not only contribute to the character of the city but also draw people to Evanston, she said, urging the city move forward on a program.
Council member Jonathan Neuwsma, 4th, said he would not want to limit legacy status to retail.
He noted the city has a number of service businesses that might not meet the architectural criteria or have the distinctive physical features suggested by staff as criteria, “but have been a long standing part of Evanston.”
“Everybody knows (John H.) Cahill Plumbing,for example,” he said. “They’ve been here for years.”
Eli Klein, who serves as a member-at-large to the Committee, suggested that the criteria for the program may be made more explicit.
“Is the goal for this to help the businesses that have been here for 40 years to (stay until) 50, or encourage the businesses that have been here for five from 10 (years) to stick around to 20?” he asked.
Then, if the city does things like the registry, website and plaque, he said, “it could be an aspirational source that potentially convinces the business that’s been here for seven years and is kind of slipping, to stick around to ten, as much as it rewards the ones that have been here for 40 (or) 50.”
Council member Bobby Burns, 5th, said the most important thing to him is business retention.
“I think while we’re having this discussion we should make sure that we’re really thinking about all of our businesses, across different industries,” he said.
Council member Devon Reid, 8th, chairing the meeting, said that while he liked the idea of recognizing businesses that are long-standing, there need to be other considerations as well.
“I think we need to make sure that the businesses that we are supporting are actually producing value and they’re not industries or businesses that are on their way out,” he said. “I don’t think that it’s necessarily our role to play — you know, let’s save a business that maybe has a failed model at this point and isn’t innovating and keeping up with the times.”
He and other Committee members agreed there is more work to be done, refining the criteria for the program.
The Committee voted unanimously to continue discussion of the issue at their next meeting, which is scheduled for June 22.