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Drawing a Game Plan: Filling the Vacant Storefronts in Downtown Skokie

Skokie Economic Development Coordinator Tom Thompson and Village Community Development Director Peter Peyer sit down with Skokie Patch to discuss the village's downtown game plan.

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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David Zornig February 16, 2012 at 04:46 PM
Here are the glaring realities being missed. Any potential retailer who even has 50K minimum, isn't looking at Oakton. Those 6 figure, TIF friendly dream tenants are not realistic. Start smaller. Rents are high because property taxes are high. Landlords are writing off their losses, based on unrealistic rent figures. So there is no incentive for them to take less. That's why stores sit empty for years. No potential small businesses are going to sign booby trapped, triple net leases. Those days are over. Rents need to be $800-$1000. Not $1700+. The Village powers that be, need to take a walk down Central St. West of Green Bay in Evanston. To get a feel for what kind of stores create foot traffic. Then court those types of businesses WITH landlords who are willing to slash rents to make something happen. Again, Starbuck's should have been heavily courted to get a store open on Oakton before the L does. Even if it meant half a landlord's desired rent for the first year, Too much wait & see, and blaming the economy. It may be time for some fresh sets of eyes.
Scott Holtz February 16, 2012 at 08:53 PM
Dave, you should check with Starbucks. It's my understanding they walked out on a deal on the north side and are not opening anything much new at all these days. Starbucks is not the answer for downtown and never was. Not to say I wouldn't welcome a coffee shop but its taken over 10 years to get this train station and they should be expected to be "heavily courted" into a losing deal when there wasn't the population to support it. I did property development for a major retailer and we weren't ever "heavily courted" into anything more that what we wanted. As far as the dream tenants, the development with Drive Cleaning, Siunik, Bughouse and the soon to be open new boutique all got funds. Skokie Theatre, Libertad, Kabul, Ace, Sweety Pies... all benefited from the assistance. I think you are wrong on the numbers too here. The Village and the TIF have helped open a number of new establishments so there are people and businesses out there who can afford it. Not saying it cant be changed but it is working. Many of the successful landlords have made great rent reductions and are working with the new tenants to help them be successful and stay in business. If you look at here we were 6 years ago and where we are now it's impressive. If you have any ideas about who we can court to come to Downtown Skokie please share them or better yet, go ask them if they have ever considered Downtown Skokie and all the great things going on.
David Zornig February 16, 2012 at 09:44 PM
Hi Scott. Starbucks was only an example. Because every one comes with built-in foot traffic. Caribou or others should then have been dangled a carrot, once Starbucks pulled out if that was the case. (The 1st I'm hearing of that.) It's more about how potential businesses are approached and by whom. Sell the sizzle, not the steak. "Never was the answer", just isn't true. It dismisses the impact of what one could do. It would only one element of many that other potential businesses could build on. It's the planning of who can feed off of who's businesses, that needs to be honed in on. Central St/Evanston has a 2nd coffee shop just doors down the street from their Starbuck's. But the latter also offers Gelato, and both are thriving. Also 2 bakeries in the same block. All near a Pat's Place style diner. Creating a Soccer Mom type drive-by atmosphere is what's needed. Bughouse is a huge step forward on that front. Yes positive things are happening. But the bigger picture needs to be grasped by those being paid to market the Downtown. If they brokered rent reductions, then they should tout such when interviewed for things like the above. I try to stay positive, but realistic. The new restaurants are great. But when Tuscany & Billy's close before them, it's more like lateral moves numbers wise.
Scott Holtz February 16, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Caribou was approached but when you don't have the traffic why would they come? They too have dramatically decreased the number of stores they open and we didn't have the demographics. I think you are under the impression that local government can tell people to lower their rent or open a store here. They tried to calm traffic and create a more Central Street environment with the road diet but the community clearly didn't want that. Central Street for years has had a train station and is only 2 lanes with tons of parking on both side. No trucks, no 45 mile per hour vehicles on their way through it. They can offer incentives and do - more than most communities. Dave, I really hate these long winded discussions on the internet. Next thing you know another expert will pop in and I really have other things to do than this. Lets at your earliest go to a coffee shop we do have (Sweety Pies) and talk. I may be able to answer some questions you have. In my volunteering I have discovered a wealth of information is there and free for the asking. The key is - support what we have so the next time Starbucks is looking then they will see a vibrant downtown with all the seats in every place to eat full at lunch and the shops that we have bustling.
Katie Gudgel February 17, 2012 at 03:33 PM
I think this is a very important discussion that should be taking place - what is the Village of Skokie doing in order to foster Economic Development. Fortunately, residents, business owners, and the general public will have the opportunity to ask that question of Village staff and other community leaders next week. Wednesday, Feb. 22, Skokie Voice is hosting an Economic Development Forum where the following organizations are scheduled to be represented: Village of Skokie, Skokie Chamber of Commerce, Independent Merchants of Downtown Skokie (IMODS), Dempster Street Merchants Association and Skokie Downtown Alliance. For more information go to: http://www.skokievoice.org/calendar.html In addition, please fill out the survey at: http://www.surveymonkey.com/Home_Landing.aspx?sm=mpLKuK3ZbwWP9%2fmEkmQaQYfYTPR4Sk2M9jkrT61DqQ4%3d This will be the basis for many of the discussion topics.

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