Council members, city staff and local business owners are collaborating on a program to ensure long-standing Evanston businesses and nonprofits can remain community fixtures well into the future.

The new Legacy Business Program, still early in its development, will provide direct support to Evanston-based businesses and nonprofit organizations that have operated for at least 20 years.

Bennison’s Bakeries is an example of a legacy business. Credit: Submitted

The program is being developed by a working group led by Council member Clare Kelly (1st Ward) and including Council member Melissa Wynne (3rd Ward), Carl Klein and Suzi Reinhold from the Preservation Commission, Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmazek and city planner Cade Sterling.

Its purpose statement explains that legacy businesses are defining features of Evanston and its neighborhoods, and that losing them would be harmful to both the city’s heritage and its economic vitality. It reads:

“Evanston’s heritage resources are vitally important, bind its residents to their physical environment, and define the City’s unique character and identity. However, Evanston’s living heritage remains largely underrepresented and vulnerable from threats such as improper alterations, increasing rent structures, changes in the market economy, and corresponding development pressures.”

Businesses wanting legacy recognition will nominate themselves, and once approved will be placed on an online registry and receive a plaque to use at its location. City staff are creating a Request for Proposal for artists and web designers to create the plaque design and website, and tentatively plan to issue it on Sept. 22.

Hecky’s Barbecue, an Evanston institution since 1983, was one of the longtime businesses named by Council Member Clare Kelly, First Ward, as a legacy business. Credit: Evanston Chamber of Commerce

The program will also offer grants and assistance to organizations to stay open and successful. Proposed areas of support include physical restoration and repair of distinctive features, assistance with marketing and strategic planning, and rent stabilization and lease renegotiation support between businesses and landlords.

Sterling said negotiating long-term leases will be especially important.

“A lot of these businesses don’t have long-term leases, so we would try to negotiate like, 20-year leases for a business at a stable rent structure,” Sterling said. “There’s the normal stress of running a business day-to-day, but there’s also the constant stress of, ‘Will my building be demolished for something else, or is my rent going to go up once lease is changed every two years or so,’ and all of that is just massively stressful.”

The working group initially identified a list of 31 long-time businesses as pilot candidates through its own research, and has now compiled a list of nearly 200 businesses and nonprofits submitted by community members through a Google Form.

Businesses on both lists are diverse in their locations in Evanston, whether they provide goods or services and whether or not they have a public-facing storefront. Sixty-seven have been around for at least 50 years, and 13 have been around a century or longer.

The working group’s next meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, in Civic Center Room 2402. Owners of the 31 businesses on the initial list have been invited to attend and, in Sterling’s words, “act somewhat like a steering committee” for the working group moving forward.

Alex Harrison reports on local government, public safety, developments, town-gown relations and more for the RoundTable. He graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in June...