If the final product lives up to the preview, Evanston should have a wealth of recommendations heading its way on how the city might improve its business districts.

Representatives of Interface Studio are expected to release their draft study  of Evanston’s eight business districts on March 10, members of city’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) learned at its Feb. 22 meeting.

Last May, the Evanston City Council approved a $245,000 consulting contract with the Philadelphia-based firm for the business analysis study, which officials hope will provide a blueprint for city’s economic development success as it emerges from COVID-19.

“Think about ways to fold in business owners experiences and insights at the beginning of a planning and discussion rather than at the tail end.”

Preliminary report recommendation from the surveys

The firm’s research includes surveys of 2,100 residents and more than 220 business  owners.

“This was a heavy lift,” said Sarah Kellerman, a member of the Interface Studio team, speaking remotely, to EDC members. “We put a lot of questions out there and I have to say, the business community responded very thoughtfully and often with long-form answers.”

Many of the firm’s recommendations deal with support of business and economic growth, which 55.8% of business owners listed as their No. 1 priority in the surveys.

Renderings of what Fountain Square might look like in winter and summer. Credit: Interface Studio LLC

Kellerman provided a small example from the firm’s study – focusing on how the city distributes funds through its Great Merchant program.

“Sixty to 90% of the funds are applied to landscaping and maintenance of existing planters and green spaces annually,” the firm found.

The program includes a wide range of other uses the funds could be applied to, ranging from infrastructure improvements to marketing brochures, maps and district-event posters.

The limited use is an example of “a real mismatch,” compared to what “some of these merchant organizations are interested in trying to implement in their districts,” Kellerman said.

Another preliminary recommendation calls for rethinking and streamlining internal process and programs to better support Evanston business owners.

Some suggested actions in that area include easing food truck parking regulations, re-evaluating the city’s amusement tax (high compared to other communities), providing guidance to businesses interested in creating parklet/sidewall cafes and offering incentives to fill empty storefronts.

With Evanston residents looking for business areas to provide greater fun and entertainment, “having the highest entertainment tax in the region is something that maybe we need to take a look at,” Kellerman noted.

Proactive rather than reactive

Business owners also want a chance to weigh in on the proposals that are impacting their operations, Kellerman told EDC members.

Business owners and residents offered their own comments on what they’d like to see improved in Evanston business districts. Credit: Studio Interface LLC

She noted the business community’s reaction after the City Council nearly prohibited businesses from going cashless. A number of business owners suggested alternatives to the ordinance after city officials went back out for greater feedback.

“This is a very collaborative and vocal business environment,” Kellerman said, suggesting officials consider “thinking about ways to fold in business owners experiences and insights at the beginning of a planning and discussion rather than at the tail end.”

Another recommendation calls for strengthening partnerships with key institutions, including partnering with Northwestern University to produce larger events that appeal to students and visitors.

Other suggestions include activating Evanston’s most unique public spaces, such as Fountain Square and the lakefront, more often.

The consultants also suggest the city create a special events coordinator to create and promote city-sponsored events and oversee permitting, coordination and implementation of events.

Activate Fountain Square

At Fountain Square, officials should consider a pilot program, bringing the city’s popular Farmers’ Market there, as one way to activate that space, the report suggests.

“That would be an example of how we could evolve or expand the reach of an event to drive people to the brick-and-mortar business that really are right on their doorstep,” Kellerman said.

In other cities, such as Madison, Wisconsin, the Farmers’ Market is in the center of town and “retailers derive a lot of benefits,” she said.

Kellerman told EDC members that one focus of the study was looking at “not what’s driving customers to a business but what’s driving retailers to Evanston. So we’re thinking about how businesses, whether they be franchises or local businesses, think about making the choice to locate in a certain place.”

Overall, Evanston offers a retailed environment that is “unrivaled on the North Shore,” she told EDC members.

The city has this “really interesting dynamic, where you’ve got the ability to offer big city benefits,” such as multiple theaters, she said, “but you also have amenities that are family-friendly” with more of a suburban sensibility. 

“You’re also dealing with some big city challenges,” she said.

Burns: Grow this into a work plan

In the discussion after the presentation, Council Member Bobby Burns (5th Ward) talked about the challenge of taking the firm’s recommendations “and trying to grow this into a work plan.

“As a council member, I’m really engaged and I think I’ve gotten a good sense of staff capacity, but I don’t think we have [sufficient capacity] to take on most projects, let alone something of this size.”

“And so realistically … how do we think about support to actually do a meaningful work plan and implementation?” he asked.

Paul Zalmezak, the city’s economic development manager, also acknowledged the task before officials.

The recommendations in the report are “literally 27 pages, which is a massive undertaking,” he said.

He suggested that the committee start by meeting in smaller groups and break the report into smaller segments.

Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) also acknowledged that the action part is really important.

“We paid a big bunch of money to get some advice and now what do we do with it?” he said, stressing the need for some kind of roadmap and thought process for moving ahead.

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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