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Downtown update: New program hopes to revitalize small businesses

City Council will soon vote on hiring a graphic design firm to build a website and logo for Evanston’s brand new Legacy Business Programworking group member and Preservation Commissioner Carl Klein said Thursday night.

In the coming months and years, that program could help distribute grant money to struggling small businesses in need of a financial boost to survive, according to Klein and First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly.

To be eligible for assistance, a business will have to be at least 20 years old and able to demonstrate a significant contribution to Evanston culture and community over the years, as well, Klein told a group of 50 residents during a virtual First Ward meeting Thursday .

The creation of the program arrives at a time when several downtown businesses have shuttered or relied on donations from residents to stay open. Smylie Brothers Brewing Co., Flat Top Grill, Clarke’s Off Campus and Farmhouse have recently closed, on top of many others that have been forced to shut down since the pandemic.

Clarke’s Off Campus diner closed at the end of 2022. Credit: Evan Girard/Evanston RoundTable

“There’s a lot of private investment. There’s a lot of interest from the development community. There’s some projects underway already, and people scoping out spaces to figure out what the next phase of Evanston is,” Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak said. “I don’t want to sound like a pitch man, but I do want to stress that I think we’re okay.”

To Zalmezak’s point, a slew of incoming businesses are set to open in the coming months, replacing some of those vacant storefronts that have become familiar to Evanstonians in recent years. Big Wig Taco, Devil Dawgs, Egg Harbor Cafe, an indoor trampoline park and potentially a Crumbl Cookies franchise are all set to open in the redeveloped Church St. plaza, near the movie theater.

Plus, the owners of Farmhouse are in the process of planning a new restaurant in the same location, but with a new concept and a new name, according to Downtown Evanston Executive Director Annie Coakley.

Zalmezak also added that “I think we’ll see Smylie back,” noting how the owners of the brewpub have been around the area since the founding of the Chicago Stock Exchange in the late 1800s.

But still, business owners at Thursday’s ward meeting expressed concerns about a trend of developers across the country buying properties, making minimal renovations and then instituting massive rent hikes.

Bookends & Beginnings “secret” location in Bookman’s Alley. Credit: Submitted

“What happened to us in the alley was this giant rent increase that we didn’t see coming and couldn’t afford,” said Nina Barrett, the owner of Bookends and Beginnings, which is moving from its Bookman’s Alley location to Orrington Ave. next month.

“My little wake-up call from that experience is knowing that if you are renting, there’s no protection for your business. I was doing business in the alley for almost 10 years. I felt very established and rooted in that part of Evanston, but somebody new can buy your property, and it can endanger your survival.”

In an Evanston success story, though, Barrett made a GoFundMe page in December to raise emergency moving funds. As of Thursday, Jan. 19, that page has raised more than $100,000 from 1,200 individual donors.

The bookshop will remain open in the iconic alley location through Saturday, Jan. 28, and Barrett is hoping to open the new location around Feb. 9, she said Thursday. She’s also throwing a “Last Call in the Alley” party from 6 to 8 pm Wednesday, Jan. 25, featuring special guests and a final toast to the famous location. You can register for that event here.

The front of Al’s Deli on Noyes St. Credit: Nash Vest

Facing their own hardships from the pandemic downturn, John and Bob Pottinger, owners of Al’s Deli on Noyes St., found themselves unable to pay rent in November and December. As two self-described “old guys,” they still require masks and do not offer any dine-in services because of Covid concerns, but that decision has led to some difficult times.

Not only have their safety protocols hurt their business, but customers have also mistreated them from time to time. John said people have thrown masks at him, and one person even spit at him.

Luckyly, a GoFundMe page saved the day for Al’s, as well, raising more than $17,000 in about two weeks earlier this month. John and Bob have now paid November, December and January rent, and they have a cushion of about three months’ worth thanks to the fundraiser.

“It’s a sink or swim industry,” Coakley said. “If you don’t continue to reinvent yourself, you’re going to struggle. The restaurant industry is significantly difficult.”

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