Students are starting to return to Evanston but not in numbers yet to make a difference in a struggling economy
Students are starting to return to Evanston but not in numbers yet to make a difference in a struggling economy

The Unicorn Cafe, one of the first of the independent coffee shops to establish roots downtown, has closed.

The cafe, at 1723 Sherman Ave., a stone throw’s away from the Northwestern University campus, and popular both with students as well as downtown workers, is the latest in a wave of Evanston businesses that have shut their doors during the pandemic.

It will not be the last, said Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Economic Development Division Manager, Acting Deputy City Manager Paulina Martinez, and Katie Bilden, the City’s Economic Development Specialist, in a report at the Sept. 14 City Council meeting.

The staff members’ report outlined some of the issues the City’s economy faces in the current COVID-19 environment and pointed to possible solutions.

“I think there’s going to be an increase in failures,” said Mr. Zalmezak, leading the presentation. “We're hearing a little bit more from businesses who are really struggling. The stimulus has gone and there's nothing in the pipeline. So the expectation should be that you're going to see more of this, despite all the work that we're all doing, all the hard work that our businesses are doing. So keep that in mind: It's going to get worse before it gets better.”

Social distancing and remote learning have greatly reduced street life, transit ridership and customers for restaurants and shops, officials said in their report.

“Anecdotally, but consistently, we're hearing restaurants and retailers are down 50% compared to last year,”

Mr. Zalmezak said. “Part of that is half the [Northwestern] student body is gone. There are a ton of layoffs, as you know, at our office buildings in downtown Evanston. They're [workers are] not returning before spring of 2021. So when you have a decreased daytime population, that severely diminishes our daytime office population – there just aren’t people to support all of our businesses, and we're starting to see a little bit of an uptick in closures.”

Signs before COVID-19

Officials were already beginning to see the downturn before the pandemic with bricks-and-mortar stores up against what has been termed a national “retail apocalypse,” with more customers moving to buy on line. Pointing to human behavior, officials said they believe the trends will balance out at some point.

“We have always returned to our basic survival instinct – we need to be together physically, socially, economically,” they said. “Permanent shifts [such as demand for home offices, or rural living or permanent remote living] in the economy seem unlikely in the longer term.”

Evanston’s strengths as a desirable place will work towards the City’s recovery, officials said.

“We are also in an enviable position as a suburb in terms of public transportation,” pointed out Ms. Martinez. “We have the CTA, Metra, Pace, that connect us to a world class economic engine like Chicago –  and to talent and other resources and assets. Our access to Lake Michigan [provides] economic and recreational assets that will gives us advantages compared to adjacent communities that do not have access to the lake.”

She counted as other advantages the City’s education and health-care institutions, such as Northwestern and the local hospitals based here.

All that works together “to attract a well-educated workforce and provide us with access to some of the brightest minds,” she said.

Officials noted that a number of economic development programs are now in play in an effort to tide over struggling businesses during the difficult period.

An Entrepreneurship Emergency Assistance Program is designed to provide as much as $100,000 in assistance to existing businesses. Other programs such as Lending for Evanston and Northwestern Development (LEND) and a COVID-19 Micro-Enterprise Grant also provide assistance to existing businesses and low and moderate micro businesses, officials said.

In addition, the City is partnering with institutions such as the Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management to provide pro bono consulting for the local business community, Mr. Zalmezak said.

Change of Direction Needed

Still, officials believe a retail restructuring will be needed as an essential part of the recovery.

“Traditional ‘Shop Small’ or ‘Shop Local’ campaigns attempting to guilt consumers into shopping at local shops are losing relevance during COVID-19,” they said.

A shift to funding and strategies for expanding local e-commerce is needed, they said, as well as campaigns promoting “shop unique” and “ seek experiences” in local business district storefronts.

Even more importantly, Mr. Zalmezak said, “we need to partner with our Special Service Areas and our other partners to help our local businesses adapt to, and adopt e-commerce. And that's kind of like a technical assistance program. It's getting people on board. It's warming them up to that.”

Looking ahead, the City needs to shift its economic development mindset from traditional “growth” model to a focus on Evanstonian economic well-being, officials said, including coordinated workforce development, financial wellness initiatives, affordable housing policies, and technical assistance for micro-enterprises.

In addition, the City should look at the strategic sale and consolidation of City-owned properties, Mr. Zalmezak said, including the Civic Center, at 2190 N. Ridge Ave., Evanston Police/Fire Headquarters at 1454 Elmwood Ave. and 909 Lake St.

Sale of those properties could generate new revenues, he said, and result in savings of maintenance and operating expenses.

Other changes to consider include alternative uses for ground-floor space vacated by retail enterprises not likely to return; as well as concentrating retail uses along Sherman Avenue to create a “retail cluster” to encourage strolling between Clark and Grove streets, officials said in their report.

Meanwhile, the City should update its code to require vacant storefronts to meet a higher standard, including window appliqués, art or product displays – avoiding the “brown paper peeling off windows in the sun while we wait for new retail or new service uses to open in our storefronts,” said Mr. Zalmezak. “That’s just not going to work.”

"If it looks better, if it has art, if it has messaging, it's showing that we're being pro-active," he said, "and people will still enjoy walking in downtown, maybe to grab a coffee or something to eat."

Post COVID-19, Evanston will recover with “active, creative, and collaborative solutions,” the officials said in their report.

“These business closures happened and we're happening before COVID and they'll continue to happen during COVID-19,” Mr. Zalmezak told Council members.

The City needs “to think bigger picture about how we create an economic program that really focus on economic well being, not just economic growth, and then Evanston will recover,” he said.

The officials’ full presentation can be seen at https://youtu.be/2b5JQmVYN_c?t=5101.