Perhaps some of it is lore, perhaps some of it is truth, but Dempster Street in Skokie was once thought of as a bustling area filled with thriving businesses. That isn’t the case so much anymore, but a group of local business owners believe a Dempster Street renaissance is possible and are working toward that goal.
With representatives of the local business community on hand as well as several village officials, the Dempster Street Merchants Association held its first meeting recently with an overall goal of injecting life into the east-west thoroughfare that is now tattooed with many empty storefronts.
David Putrus, an assistant vice president at First Bank & Trust, which recently opened its own location on Dempster, started the association.
“As a member of First Bank and also living in Skokie, I see the need of trade with one another,” Putrus said. “This all started when a merchant said it (flusters) him when I don’t get business from my neighbors. It’s about knowing one another and networking with one another. We want to keep the community vibrant and keep the businesses going.”
If Dempster Street is going to be lively again, it likely will need the support and commitment from businessmen like Steven Schwartz, who after a career in finance has decided to spend considerable capital and open an insurance agency through AAA.
“I grew up in Skokie and I still live in the area and I saw an opportunity on Dempster Street to bring more traffic to my agency and more support to Skokie,” Schwartz said. “Someone has to take the first step and be the trailblazer. What better opportunity than an established business with a good brand name.”
That is the kind optimism this organization is looking for as it tries to get its feet wet in the community.
“It’s shocking that something like this hasn’t been created in the past,” said Shalom Klein, a community activist who in tandem with his father, Moshe, operates an accounting firm on Dempster. “We all have the same challenges that face us up and down Dempster. When there is traffic in one area of Dempster, everyone else suffers. We want cars, we want a lot of business.”
Among those in attendance on the opening night was State Rep. Dan Biss who is looking to move over to the State Senate, Skokie trustees Michael Lorge and Pramod Shah, Skokie police chief Anthony Scarpelli and Plan Commission Chairman Paul Luke. The village is hoping the expected opening of an Oberweis Dairy near the intersection of Dempster Street and Skokie Boulevard later this year will spur other businesses to choose the same location.
Not only will this association be an opportunity for new businesses like Schwartz to network effectively and get off the ground, it may also serve as the place for established places to find new customers or do some public relations work if necessary. Such is the case right now for one of the more iconic businesses on Dempster is Kaufman’s Deli, a Skokie destination since the mid 1950s. Kaufman’s has not been operating since November after a fire ravaged the store.
Bette Dworkin, Kaufman’s owner, used the opportunity to say hello to old friends and let them know her store will re-open at some point.
“We’ve been closed for about two months and I wanted to get back into the community and let them know we aren’t going away,” Dworkin said. “This type of organization is important in today’s marketplace.
“The banks have to free up capital so people can invest,” she added. “I think the village has gotten more aggressive in terms of helping property owners such as the TIF district and cleaning up the area.”
Howard Meyer, the executive director of the Skokie Chamber of Commerce was pleased about the formation of the group. “Any time an organization is developed to promote business is positive,” he said.
Yet, Meyer is not sure whether Dempster Street stretch can ever regain the position it once had. “It will never be the way it was because the retail environment has been changed and overdeveloped,” he said. “I think the success of any district is related to how the individual businesses make themselves known to the businesses of the community.”