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Evanston officials moved forward this week on a proposal that would recognize the special character of longstanding businesses by creating a program to ensure they can remain in the city.

Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee strongly backed the city staff’s proposed Legacy Business Program at the committee’s Tuesday, May 31, meeting.

Economic development officials have long stressed the importance of retaining existing businesses as an important if sometimes overlooked element of the city’s economic development strategy.

Hecky’s Barbecue, an Evanston institution since 1983, was one of the longtime businesses named by Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, at the Economic Development Committee meeting. Credit: Evanston Chamber of Commerce

“Preserving our small businesses is critical to maintaining Evanston’s unique character and cultural identity. In addition to contributing to Evanston’s business district’s vitality, they provide employment opportunities and help create a sense of place for local residents,” wrote city Economic Development Specialist Katheryn Boden in a May 25 memo to the committee.

“So much attention is focused on new business openings and attracting new businesses to fill vacant spaces,” she wrote, “we often fail to direct attention to the businesses that have spent a great deal of time and financial resources to remain relevant in an increasingly competitive retail environment, particularly in the wake of the pandemic and growth of e-commerce.”

Programs established by other cities include grants, technical assistance and other marketing and branding services, she said.

San Francisco’s Legacy Preservation Fund, the first of its kind, she wrote, offers annual grants to the businesses which make up its registry (up to 300 of them) of $500 per employee, as well as issuing a $4.50 per square foot grant to property owners who extend 10-year leases to tenants.

Grants can increase to $50,000 per business and $22,500 for property owners, according to the staff memo. Since its inception, the program has helped more than 230 businesses and nonprofits, Boden said in the memo.

Establishing a registry

Evanston officials are proposing the city set criteria that a business would have to meet to qualify as a Legacy Business. Under the program, a Legacy Business Registry would be established that formally recognizes a business’ contribution to the city. Grants could run up to $25,000 per business or $10,000 per property owner, officials suggested.

The program would be paid for out of the city’s Business District Improvement account, which currently has a balance of roughly $160,000.

The designation could apply to “local businesses that have been long-standing pillars of our community and encourage their continued vitality and success,” staff wrote in the memo.

Some of the program criteria such a business might have to meet include at least 10 to 30-plus years of doing business in Evanston, a contribution to the architectural or cultural identity of the city or the neighborhood and a commitment to “maintaining the physical features or traditions that define the business,” staff suggested.

The proposed program could include a dedicated website with a business guide and the featured businesses, city recognition – such as a plaque, branding, window decal, an announcement from the Mayor – calling attention to the business.

Council Member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, suggested officials try to assist as many businesses as possible, at the same time “recognizing that too little money doesn’t give them a boost.”

The city might aim for a “sweet spot” where enough money is given out to help a business yet reserve sufficient funds so other businesses can get a slice of the pie, she said.

Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, a lifelong resident of Evanston, spoke of “the deep value of our legacy businesses,” naming Hecky’s, the Mexican Shop, Dave’s Down to Earth Rock Shop, D&D Foods – and adding she could “go on and on.”

The businesses not only contribute to the character of the city but also draw people to Evanston, she said, urging the city move to forward on a program.

Council Member Jonathan Neuwsma, 4th Ward, said he would not want to limit legacy status to retail businesses. He noted the city has a number of service businesses that might not meet the architectural criteria or have the distinctive physical features suggested by staff as criteria, “but have been a longstanding part of Evanston.”

“Everybody knows Cahill Plumbing, for example,” he said. “They’ve been here for  years.”

Eli Klein, who serves as a member-at-large to the committee, suggested the program criteria may need to be made more explicit. “Is the goal for this to help the businesses that have been here for 40 years to [stay until] 50, or encourage the businesses that have been here for five from 10 [years] to stick around to 20?” he asked.

Then, if the city does things like the registry, website and plaque, he said, “it could be an aspirational source that potentially convinces the business that’s been here for seven years and is kind of slipping, to stick around to 10, as much as it rewards the ones that have been here for 40 or 50.”

Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, said the most  important thing to him is business retention. “I think while we’re having this discussion we should make sure that we’re really thinking about all of our businesses, across different industries,” he said.

Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, chairing the meeting, said that while he liked the idea of recognizing businesses that are longstanding, there need to be other considerations as well.

“I think we need to make sure that  the businesses that we are supporting are actually producing value and they’re not industries or businesses that are on their way out,” he said. “I don’t think that it’s necessarily our role to play – you know, let’s save a business that maybe has a failed model at this point and isn’t innovating and keeping  up with the times.”

He and other committee members agreed there is more work to be done to refine the criteria for the program. 

Committee members voted unanimously to continue discussion at their next meeting, scheduled for June 22.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. This really seems like directing precious resources to where they are least needed. How does one become a legacy business? By having a successful business model and well satisfying the needs of your customers. Year after year after year. The businesses named in the article have been successful for decades what makes the council think they are suddenly in so much peril that a grant would make or break their future? The Mexican shop is so financially healthy they close for months at a time each year – rent payments be damned. Cahill Plumbing has thrived for 130 years and from personal experience I can attest they have priced their services to ensure their continued survival without any need for our tax dollars. I would suggest focusing these resources on nurturing the future legacy businesses of Evanston and leave those who’ve established themselves to continue doing their good work.