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At the Second Ward meeting on April 11, Scott Inbinder brought news that for several years many had been hoping to hear: Negotiations are under way for a bowling alley in the Dempster/Dodge shopping plaza. Mr. Inbinder is a principal of Bonnie Management, which purchased the foreclosed shopping plaza more than a year ago.

Mr. Inbinder was cautious about promising results from his conversations with the owners of the Wilmette Bowling Center.

The structure and build-out of the shopping plaza are not optimal for a bowling alley, he said: The ceiling lights are not ideal, and the maximum depth is only 150 feet. Most bowling alleys are about 100 feet long, and room is needed in front for seats and standing and at the back for pin-setting machines – 50 yards makes a close fit. Moreover, columns interrupt the space every 25 feet, he said, and most bowling alleys are free of such structural supports.

On the positive side, said Mr. Inbinder, “This is a good location, an urban location. We do have a variety of vacant spaces – 25,000 square feet and 28,000 square feet. So I don’t think it’s impossible,” Mr. Inbinder told the residents at the meeting. “It’s a configuration he [the owner] can live with.” He also said he had spoken to representatives of Brunswick and Pin Stripes but neither of those larger chains is opening new bowling alleys, he said.  

Asked whether there could be temporary uses of the plaza in the summer, Mr. Inbinder said that in his other shopping plazas, “we’ve done tent sales and car shows” and “would entertain” the idea of similar events at Evanston Plaza.

Because of the businesses on the southeast corner of Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue –  a payday loan store and a cheap insurance office – “there is a perception that this is not a family-friendly area and maybe not a safe area,” said long-time resident Dickelle Fonda, adding, “The opposite is true.” She asked Mr. Inbinder whether he had considered “hiring a public relations firm and spin this [area].”

“We spin this every day,” responded Mr. Inbinder. “It’s our duty to say every day, ‘Look at Evanston. Look at the neighborhood. We can do these things for you if you come.’

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. I don’t want to spend a lot of money changing the appearance and find out it’s the wrong change. It’s hard to make changes when you’re only 55 percent leased and you don’t know what prospective tenants want.”

Mr. Inbinder said some larger tenants would rather be in downtown Evanston than in a peripheral neighborhood shopping area [because] “people don’t see this [plaza] as a regional area.”

But some changes are on the way, however, said Mr. Inbinder. “As spring comes, we are poised to make physical upgrades,” such as painting certain area and repairing the canopies. He also said that, although Bonnie Management has not been able to secure an anchor tenant, they have leased 20,000 square feet of space.

The new tenants are service rather than retail, he said: Papa Romeo’s [fast food] is in the out-lot; the Armed Services recruiting station, DaVida dialysis center and a pediatrician.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite said, “I think it’s a great neighborhood for Erie Health Care,” the federally qualified health center that will relocate from the Civic Center to Hartrey Avenue just south of Dempster Street in late summer. “It’s becoming a health-related area.”

“I’m convinced it’s a matter of time [until the plaza is leased]. I have letters of intent from some clients,” said Mr. Inbinder, adding, “It’s in our best interest to lease the space.”

“I’m just as optimistic as you are,” said Ald. Braithwaite.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, who also attended the meeting, was asked about the City’s long-term vision for the plaza. Last year City Council approved a tax-increment financing (TIF) district that encompasses the entire shopping plaza and only that property. Council also approved the spending of up to $2 million in TIF funds on the plaza.

“One of the things behind the TIF is the future of the plaza if Dominick’s leaves,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. The grocery store has just over seven years left on its lease. Its parent company, based in Canada, has been closing Dominick’s and Safeway stores in the U.S. “The majority of money from the TIF is, in the Council’s mind, for after Dominick’s leaves.”

Mr. Inbinder said Dominick’s personnel have been “incredible” in helping to get the spaces leased. He added that the grocery store’s sales have increased over the past two years. He said he thought this would be true of whatever grocery store was located there and added, “I’m pretty confident there will always be a grocery store there.”