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After nearly 19 years as executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, Jonathan Perman announced his resignation. Recently he discussed with the RoundTable his tenure at the Chamber,both the challenges he encountered in 1992 when he began and those he sees as he leaves. In some ways, these are the same, the latter reconfigured for 21st-century Evanston: maintaining Chamber membership, collaborative relations with the City and good relations with Northwestern University.
“When I came in 1992, the organization was at pretty low ebb. … The challenges were to stabilize the membership base, come up with programs that would be valuable [to the members] and restore the relationship with the City, which had fallen apart.” Some Chamber leaders, he said, had in 1991 published the DIET Plan – Defeat Increases in Evanston Taxes. While the content, he said was by most accounts factual, the tone was “arrogant, degrading and sarcastic. … So one of the first things I did was have breakfast or lunch with each of the 18 members of the City Council in their wards.” He said he felt that gesture “went a long way” toward restoring City-Chamber relations.
The Chamber now boasts about 600 members, not all of them from Evanston, Mr. Perman said, nearly double the early 1990s membership. One program implemented under his watch encouraged all employees to attend Chamber events; another created the organization Young Professionals of Evanston.
Attracting employees, in addition to business-owners and CEOS, and enticing young professionals, he said, would pay off in greater engagement with the community.
The Chamber made some internal changes, as well, Mr. Perman said. “We got out of the festival business and stopped holding the World’s Largest Garage Sale.” For about four years in the early 1990s, the Chamber and Pete Miller’s restaurant hosted the “Jump & Verve Jazz Festival,” featuring music, dining and live jazz on Sherman Avenue. “It was a great event,” he said. The World’s Largest Garage Sale was held for years on several tiers of the old Sherman Avenue Garage. “It made local merchants angry [because temporary sellers would bring their wares in for a weekend, cutting into downtown business sales], so when the new garage was going to be built, we had an excuse to end it.”
While the Chamber still sponsors the annual Fountain Square Arts Festival, the operation has been turned over to professionals, he said.
The Chamber worked with the City as it revised its zoning code – an effort completed in 1993, Mr. Perman said. He added he felt the Chamber helped the zoning to be more flexible, allowing for, on a small scale, the operation of home-based businesses, and, on a large scale, additional height and density in housing constructed near mass transit.
A cooperative effort with the downtown merchants helped to draft and obtain Council approval for the anti-panhandling ordinance, which bars “aggressive” panhandling. “The message was to give money to shelters and soup kitchens, where the contributions would be more long-lasting and useful. … We worked with the Evanston Police Department, soup kitchens and shelters to come up with an ordinance we thought was compassionate and fair,” he said, “and to a certain extent, it works.”
During Mr. Perman’s years at the Chamber, Evanston’s downtown grew with the reconfiguration of the south end of the Research Park into the retail, restaurant and movie-theater complex of today. The City also shifted its attitude toward business, he said. “It now has an economic development department,” he said, and is focused on attracting and retaining business.
The implementation of that focus – making Evanston attractive enough for businesses to relocated and remain here – has to be done through a focus on taking advantage of what he call’s the City’s intellectual capital. “We have the lakefront, we have the café culture and the arts culture,” he said, “but what we have, in addition,n is this incredible reservoir of talent.” Not so long ago CNN reported that Evanston ranks fourth in cities whose population has at least a master’s degree, he said. Recognizing that, he said, “We made a shift in how we promoted Evanston – from the physical to the intellectual [amenities].”
Evanston is now promoted as a destination city, Mr. Perman said, something that was not considered 15 years ago. “The establishment of the North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau brought destination marketing to Evanston and made Evanston think of itself in terms of its athletic events, cultural events and hospitality.”
Mr. Perman said his four years at the New Haven, Conn., Chamber of Commerce taught him about regionalism and he “brought to Evanston a whole sense of regionalism – looking beyond the boundaries of your community. … These interrelationships are imminently important. Transit, for example, won’t be solved by one community.”
Witnessing Evanston’s evolution from the early 1990s to 2011, and working to help some of the changes come about, Mr. Perman said, has been rewarding. The “capstone” of his tenure, he said, came in 2009, when “Business Week named Evanston as one of the top 50 places to start a business.” With that, Mr. Perman leaves the Evanston Chamber of Commerce pointing to a destination not yet named. He says, though, his ties to Evanston may be attenuated but they will not be severed.