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The backbone of small business in Evanston is the service businesses, said Jonathan Perman at the June 24 meeting of the City’s Economic Development Committee – and some of them are doing well in this economy. Mr. Perman, executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, and Carolyn Dellutri, executive director of Evmark, gave an overview of the local economy.

Present Situation

Figures show unemployment continues to increase in Evanston, the state and the country.

According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, the unemployment rate in Evanston has increased by more than 80 percent since 2006, when it was 3.5 percent. In 2007, the rate was 3.8 percent; in 2008 it was 4.7 percent. This year, the unemployment rate was 5.3 percent in January, and rose to 7.6 percent in May. That figure is still better than the statewide rate of 9.9 percent, also in May of this year.

Mr. Perman said anecdotal evidence suggests some Evanston businesses are making it through these rough times. Businesses in the information technology, creative arts, publicity and financial services sectors have seen “the greatest growth,” Mr. Perman said, “but some of them are not getting their contracts renewed or are getting contracts renewed at about half the former value. Some have to renegotiate their leases because of cash-flow challenges.”

Mr. Perman said the retail scene is “pretty varied. … Restaurants and hotels are really hurting, not just here but nationwide. High-end restaurants have suffered the most. Several businesses in Evanston are contracting for federal dollars [available] in the health-care and education industries.”

Interim Community Development Director Dennis Marino said the retail scene is “varied. … Large discount stores are clearly doing well. In the Hill development, where the Italian Coffee Bar on Church Street and the Maple Avenue Gallery on Maple Avenue are closing, “they are looking for a large national tenant.”

City Planner Morris Robinson said he felt the local business associations – Dempster/Chicago, Central Street, Main Street and downtown – are getting stronger. “The Noyes Street association is being revived now that Tom Fischl has located there and is spearheading the effort,” he said.

Ms. Dellutri said she was trying to get the business associations to work together under the Evmark umbrella. For example, instead of having several sidewalk sales this year, she said, they agreed to hold the sidewalk sales on the same day. Evmark has hired a Chicago firm to “re-brand Evanston,” and one of the phrases will be “where Chicago and the North Shore meet,” she said.

Empty Spaces

The downtown vacancy rate is 14.2 percent, Ms. Dellutri said. A quarterly report, “Available Facilities,” prepared by Commonwealth Edison, shows the commercial and business properties, the percentage leased, the available square footage and the per square foot annual rent.

Rents listed in the report vary from a low of $6.04 per-square-foot per year – one option of Class C office space at 828 Davis St. – to a high of about $40 per square foot per year at 1603 Orrington Ave.

In the Optima Horizons building at 1831 Benson Ave., which is listed as 80.4 percent leased (for office space), 583 square feet of Class B office space is available at the rate of $19 per square foot per year. In the building at 2814 Central St., listed as 54.6 percent leased, 5,000 square feet of office space is available at an annual rate of $14 per square foot.

At Evanston Plaza, Dempster Street at Dodge Avenue, 20,000 square feet of space is available in a 220,000-square-foot building at the rate of $13.75 per square foot per year. Farther south, at 625 Madison St., 1,680 square feet of office space is available at the rent of $27.70 per square foot per year; and at 505 Chicago Ave. a space of 2,250 square feet is listed at $8 per square foot per year.

Many other buildings throughout Evanston have available space for lease.