Small business owners eyeing one of the several vacant storefronts in downtown Skokie may be able to get help with securing a loan from the increasingly tight-fisted lending institutions.
While Skokie’s economic development officials, preoccupied with ways of re-developing downtown, including the upcoming opening of a new CTA station, cannot twist arms at a bank, they might be able to move them off square one with assurances of TIF (tax-increment financing) funding that can jumpstart a new business.
"We certainly can’t influence a lending institution to make a loan if it doesn’t fit their criteria,” said Tom Thompson, Skokie’s Economic Development Coordinator, amid a recent wide-ranging interview on the downtown issues with him and Peter Peyer, the village’s Community Development Director.
“We can, however, speak on their behalf. On several occasions, we make the bank aware we’ve got these incentive programs and make the bank aware they’re [businesses] going to be the recipient of money on the back end," Thompson added. “The guy needs to borrow $100,000 to do the project, the bank only really wants to loan them $70,000 or $80,000, that’s the maximum they can pay. When they see we have $50,000 that can be handed to them on the back end, they might get a little more lenient.”
Skokie is emphasizing the look and feel of downtown, so the TIF money concentrates on businesses’ appearances, inside and out.
“The $50,000 could be for a façade improvement, or an interior improvement, or both,” Thompson said. “A couple of times we’ve even gone beyond that on façade renovations in the past. We’ll even put up the public money side by side with the private money - so they don’t have to borrow the whole amount - in an escrow account, which is then paid out jointly through an architect’s approval to the contractors doing the work. We’ll just generally do that on bigger jobs. Usually we don’t want to put the money into a job until it’s completed.”
Northwest corner Oakton-Lincoln almost all empty
Storefront vacancies could be considered an area of improvement for the downtown area. At least a dozen vacancies are sprinkled among both established and new businesses, such as the Libertad and Kabul House restaurants. Most striking is the building on the northwest corner of Oakton and Lincoln, where the corner storefront, formerly Desiree restaurant, is empty. Except for one beauty salon, the entire building’s collection of storefronts are vacant.
In the building just west on Oakton Street a photo shop announced it’s moving to Schaumburg, creating another business hole.
Thompson and Peyer said the village can only do so much to fill the vacancies. Right now, their best tactic is patience to ride out the stagnant economy, which is retarding business development. Tightened-up business loans aren’t helping either, they said.
“We’re butting heads with a terrible economy,” Thompson said. “It’s not going away. It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact. So people have to be a little bit patient. We’re working with property owners and working with a design consultant to re-do their windows and make them more attractive to the public. There’s only a certain amount you can do with these buildings. We’re doing more events, more marketing. We have more events going on, we’re doing more advertising than ever. It takes a lot of money to do that.”
Said Peyer: “I don’t think you can put a time schedule on it. We had huge vacancies before. A lot of vacancies are created by property owners who wanted to re-develop their property, but didn’t do so. There’s numerous reasons for the vacancies, not only the economy, but others.”
Thompson said some property owners might have tenants in long-term leases, but the business moves out or closes. “They're still collecting rent and there’s no incentive for them to lease it – we don’t know all the situations,” he said.
The planners are trying to prevent un-occupied properties from becoming eyesores.
"You never lose sight of the big picture,” Thompson said of long-term plans. “We’ve been trying to camouflage the vacancies. We’ve been trying to put delightful colors and banners and others on that. It’s a band-aid process. We’re trying to make that privately-owned piece of property look better in the interim in hopes they will be able to attract a better use of the property than in the past.”
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