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Despite some initial business closures, the Evanston small business community worked its way through a challenging year and a half using fast adaptations and creative pivots. Local business groups credit strong community support and the creation of two Facebook groups for softening the impact of the pandemic.
“There was a mad dash to figure out how to do business the new way,” Main-Dempster Mile Executive Director Katherine Gotsick said. “We had restaurants that went to take out and retail businesses that focused on their online stores.”
One business along Central Street, Beth’s Little Bake Shop, 1814 Central St., installed a to-go window, according to Laura Brown, manager for the Central Street business district where Beth’s is located. “I think people are sort of accepting that maybe we’re going to have to live in this flex world for a while,” she said.
“Hair salons and anyone that provided hands-on services found it hard to pivot,” Downtown Evanston Executive Director Annie Coakley said. “I think that sector was hit almost the hardest. They couldn’t give a facial or a massage. No one was going to be face-to-face with someone touching them.”
Coakley said some businesses closed but not every closure was directly related to the pandemic. “Some business owners decided it was a good time to retire,” she said.
Both Gotsick and Coakley credited the survival of the majority of Evanston small businesses to two main factors: adaptability and community support. Coakley said there were other contributing factors that were more industry-specific, such as the City allowing takeaway liquor sales.
Some businesses pivoted to sell grab-and-go kits filled with at-home hair dye treatments, cocktail ingredients or meals, while others invested in upgrades such as high-quality air filtration to put customers receiving in-person services at ease, according to Coakley.
“People were skipping haircuts and dying their own hair,” she said. “It’s hard to sell a grab-and-go haircut but some salons pivoted to sell dye kits.”
Coakley said Egea, 1521 Sherman Ave., made a “very roomy and comfortable” acrylic box that went around a customer’s head so staff could provide in-person services safely.
The role of Facebook groups
At the same time, members of the Evanston community started rallying together in two Facebook Groups, “Support Evanston Restaurants” and “Support Evanston Shops, Salons and Studios.”
“The Facebook Groups were great because businesses started engaging more with the community,” Brown said. “There is value in person-to-person recommendations.”
The “Support Evanston Restaurants” group is open to the public and has approximately 4,000 members.
Shortly after the restaurant group was formed, it became apparent to Evanston resident and Coldwell Banker residential broker Ande Breunig that the retail business community would benefit from a similar group. So she formed the “Support Evanston Shops, Salons and Studios” Facebook Group.
She said the group started with about 100 members and began growing by 100 or 200 per week.
“That was right around the holiday season so I think we helped with a lot of daunting bottom lines,” Breunig said.
The group has approximately 5,100 members that either live in Evanston and its neighboring communities or conduct business in the City.
“Like most Evanstonians, I have a strong sense of pride in my community,” Breunig said. “But I also have a retail background. So I felt that I needed to do something productive and meaningful that would benefit the community.”
The group started an adopt-a-shop initiative around the middle of November 2020.
“It was a platform of three different points that they needed to embrace: shop at the location, post about it and talk to the business owner, as a way to get to know them and meet the face behind the business,” Breunig said. “There’s a big difference between shopping local and shopping online and having a box arrive at your doorstep.”
Breunig holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in journalism. She said she’s combining the support the group has shown with her background in retail to launch a magazine in September dedicated to the Evanston retail business community, called “Our Evanston.”
Gotsick said the financial situation is still evolving in the Main-Dempster Mile district and though some businesses are doing OK, others haven’t fully recovered.
“In my district, there are two different environments,” she said. “Right now Main Street has water main construction going on, which is depressing business. I’m still working on a case-by-case basis to figure out how to help and where the help can be found.”
American Rescue Act and alternative local funding
The City of Evanston Economic Development Committee recently discussed ways to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to help prevent struggling businesses from having to lay off employees or sell assets.
“Some people need access to capital and that can be stressful if their federal funds have already dried up,” Gotsick said.
She said business owners that cannot access federal funds have also turned to a nonprofit microfinancing organization run by Northwestern students called “Lending for Evanston and Northwestern Development” or LEND.
According to the organization’s website at lendevanston.org, LEND provides funding and training for Evanston-based small businesses. The site says the organization was founded in 2010 and has disbursed $220,000 to 39 businesses. LEND offers zero-interest, conditionally forgivable loans of up to $5,000 to approved businesses impacted by the pandemic and pairs the financial assistance with business consultation services and training. The website says repayment of all loans is delayed for the first 90 days, at which point LEND’s consultants evaluate whether the business is able to begin repayment.
The role of business associations
Central Street Evanston, Downtown Evanston and Main-Dempster Mile oversee Evanston’s Special Service Areas (SSAs), also known in some municipalities as business improvement districts. Businesses and residents located in SSAs pay additional taxes for a wide range of services not covered by municipal and property taxes. These services may include anything from litter collection and snow removal to business development and beautification projects, depending on the needs of the district.
Though some businesses still face challenges, several businesses are opening in Downtown Evanston’s service district, according to Coakley.
Coakley said 11 new businesses are opening in Downtown Evanston’s service district, including four ribbon cuttings scheduled on one day. She said she’s looking forward to the return of Northlight Theatre, which was founded in Evanston in 1974, after the company announced in July that it purchased property at 1012-16 Church St.
“Live entertainment is something we need to complement the restaurants we have,” Coakley said. “Northlight is going to be a beacon.”
As summer comes to a close, there is a cautious optimism about the future of Evanston’s small businesses.
“There’s this ebb and flow; mindsets are more ready to adapt,” Brown said. “Hopefully we’ve gotten through the worst of it but we’ll see this winter.”