Annie Coakley, executive director of the Downtown Evanston organization, is tasked with drawing in and sustaining businesses in the city’s central commercial district. Coakley, a Chicago native, recently talked to the RoundTable about the challenges posed by the pandemic and online retailing, as well as possibilities for downtown Evanston’s future.
Evanston RoundTable: Why don’t you start by describing the work that Downtown Evanston does?
Annie Coakley: We are an economic development organization, and a service provider for a taxing district called a Special Service Area (SSA). These are common all over the world – they’re usually called business-improvement districts or business-enhancement districts. Place management is the best way to describe it. We try to make sure that downtown is well-marketed – that we have advertising to bring people in, that we have promotions to get businesses out there and customers to their doors. Think of the Wine Walk or the tree-lighting. We provide an annual power-wash and we provide landscaping, garbage removal and holiday decorations. All of those things are things that we provide to the downtown district.
ERT: How did the COVID-19 pandemic immediately affect the downtown?
AC: Our daytime population, which is just a huge amount of people that we rely on for breakfast, lunch, dinner, after-work [activities], gyms, haircuts, doctors’ office visits, is [suddenly] at home. They’re still at home. That downtown population depleted immediately, as every downtown’s daytime population has. This is a very big news item now – downtowns are slow to return because people don’t want to come back to the office. I’m very concerned about what that will do to our restaurants, as well as our retailers. They really significantly rely on that population.
ERT: What are your biggest challenges rectifying that, as well as other challenges for downtown?
AC: The return to office – and getting people back who run errands and go shopping, get their hair cut and colored, meet up with their friends after work for a little happy hour, or go to the movie – is for me the main challenge. For someone who has my job, another challenge is the convenience of online shopping. When someone can buy anything on their phone, and it will come right to your door in a day or two, for a lot of people, it’s so convenient. But in reality, what’s more convenient then going into a store and leaving with what you came for? You saw it, you touched it, maybe you tried it on and it fit you. It’s not a case where it showed up and it didn’t look like what it did on the picture on your phone. It’s sort of an interesting dilemma: We all think [online shopping] is so convenient, but is it, though? Amazon was at first this place where you can get all these deals, but now they are relying on that “buy now” button.
ERT: How similar are these challenges to those that other cities and towns face?
AC: I used to work at [Chicago] City Hall and I have friends who still work there. They say that there’s like three places to get lunch now. There’s just not the surplus of food options and retail that there used to be. Lots of things have changed or are just gone and will never return, since the office model will never be what it once was. We’ll probably get a three-day-a-week crowd, and I’ll take it. I’d love for it to be five, but I don’t think realistically that’s ever going to be the case. I’ve been on several webinars with people across the country who do what I do. They have tried everything to incentivize people to be interested in coming back.
We did a ‘welcome back’ week. That was probably one of my hardest events ever – it was easy stuff but not knowing whether anybody would be around for it was difficult. So we just [branded it] as a ‘coffee break.’ We had a coffee mug for everyone and four or five coffee providers came out, set up and handed out free coffee. We also had a happy hour. We had a bike-to-work rally. We had yoga that was free to everybody. The turnout was bleak, for obvious reasons, because people were still not back.
ERT: What are some new businesses or developments you’re excited for?
AC: Obviously, Northlight is a huge one. There’ll be live theater, then around the corner, there will be cinematic theater, so we’ll be thrilled to have those entertainment anchors. Activity-based things are what will help us most complement [dining]. You can buy a meal online but it’s not the same experience. You can have it delivered to your door, but it’s not a night out. So what are ‘internet-proof’ retailers? That’s all really in the entertainment realm. I have been trying since the day I got this job to get a cooking school in downtown Evanston. … An indoor trampoline space will be in next to the movie theater. That will be huge and really fun. Those types of this businesses are what I’d love to be able to attract more of, to complement the many places we have to eat already.
ERT: How did you get involved with Downtown Evanston?
AC: My first job out of college – actually, in college – was as intern for the City of Chicago’s department of planning, and economic development fell into that department. I really gravitated to the economic development side. They were responsible for assisting businesses. I worked there for 18 years and I have been in this for eight years. … The oversight in Chicago is significant. They had over 50 SSA districts, and I [eventually] oversaw all of those. I was thinking, ‘I want to do what [people working in and around those districts] are doing,’ so when the position opened in Evanston, I had my first real-life interview. When I graduated from college, I already had the job I was ‘interviewing’ for.
ERT: What is one thing about you that many people don’t know?
AC: I don’t know – I always feel like I’m an open book. I always feel like if you meet me, you learn a lot about me. I guess I would say is that event planning is in my blood. My mom and my dad, along with their two best friends, dreamed up, created and produced the South Side Irish parade on the South Side of Chicago. That’s a pretty darned big event. I used to be on the committee and help run it, so I just grew up around that event planning side of things.