816-18 Church St., Proposed Elevation

While economic development appears to be stagnant or worse in these early days of 2010, and budget shortfalls loom nearly everywhere, a glimmer of optimism shone at the Jan. 27 Economic Development Committee meeting. Committee members recommended conditional approval of three funding grants that would foster business growth and expansion in Evanston. Two of the grantees – the Evanston Community Development Corporation and the Technology Innovation Center – said they will use the funds to nurture small businesses and encourage startups. The third, the architectural partnership Behles & Behles, is planning improvements to its façade to prepare for new tenants.

Committee members recommended approval of $11,000 for façade improvement for the two-story building at 818 Church St. owned by Behles & Behles. Joe Behles, one of the partners, said their plan is to remove the awnings and the ground-floor sandstone veneer on the front of the building and install there a new black granite stone base, new limestone masonry façade cladding and masonry coating (“Thorocoat”) to match the new limestone color and texture. The black granite base, said Joe Behles, who presented the plan, would be similar to that of other buildings on the block – First Bank & Trust to the west and Sherman Plaza to the east.

The Evanston Community Development Corporation (ECDC) made a recommendation that City Council provide $80,000 to expand its loan program for small businesses on the west side of town. The money would be used a hire a loan officer and to help capitalize a micro-loan fund, said interim executive director Diane Lepke. She said the City has been an invaluable partner in helping to transform the west side and added, “In order to enhance the west side, we know that our business owners need continual financing.”

In a letter to the City requesting funds and explaining the role of ECDC, board chair William Logan said the City’s west side “is most often viewed through a social-service lens. … Changing the way business, business ownership and employment are viewed by west-side residents can significantly impact the long-term prospects for all who live there.”

At present, Mr. Logan’s letter continued. ECDC provides technical assistance, business mentoring, entrepreneurship training, and loans to fledgling businesses on the west side.

The third appearance by representatives from the Technology Innovation Center (TIC, also known as the Incubator) may have been the charmed one, as ECD members requested only one more piece of documentation for final approval of $100,000. The Incubator, housed in two locations – 820 Davis St. and 825 Chicago Ave. – says it will continue its support of technology startups in Evanston. Clients of the Incubator receive no-cost services in the areas of finance, business law, marketing and corporate structure, said TIC manager Tim Lavengood. In addition, they have flexible space and access to peers.

Mr. Lavengood and owner Charles Happ presented their plan to attract, retain and foster growth of such businesses. More than 300 startups have fledged from the Incubator over its 23-year lifetime, said Mr. Lavengood.

Evanston has retained 27 of these companies; as of March, 2008, these firms employed more than 250 people. Incubator graduates throughout the Chicago area attracted more than $45 million in equity investment last year, Mr. Lavengood said.

Mr. Lavengood and Mr. Happ said they are in talks with representatives of Northwestern University – which used to provide funding for the Incubator – and that they hope to leverage both money and intellectual capital from Evanston to expand technology-based businesses here.

The snags in the processes of two of the funding requests sparked a discussion about the necessity of having greater standardization, such as a checklist at the outset, so that businesses would not appear before the committee unprepared. Morris Robinson, economic development planner for the City, said Community Development staff members “are working on a more formalized program now.”