As Des Plaines city officials continue to search for ways to revitalize a vacancy-plagued downtown, Miner Street merchants who have run businesses that have hung on for decades have laundry lists of the types of stores they believe can help in the revival effort.
One of the most senior of those merchants believes downtown needs a jolt, and quickly.
“You know what’s downtown right now, to be honest with you? Nothing,” said Maurice Gerber, the 42-year veteran manager of , as he stood by the 91-year-old retailer’s cash register. “I just went to the currency exchange [down the block] to get my auto license sticker. I was talking to them that you used to be open at 7:30 in the morning, how come you don’t open ‘til 9:30? He said, nobody’s downtown.
“That’s true because we open at 9, and we can sit here ‘till 11 before we see a customer.”
Bringing both new businesses and shoppers downtown is a task preoccupying city council, which recently appropriated $200,000 for a streetscape design proposal for the business district.
$40,000 in TIF incentives available
Previously, the council approved up to $40,000 in tax-increment financing (TIF) incentives for businesses to set up shop. Biggest of the programs is $20,000 to update storefront facades. Next is $15,000 for interior reconstructions. Up to $5,000 more is available to approve awnings.
“The process is pretty streamlined,” said Mike Bartholomew, Des Plaines’ director of community and economic development. “Apply at this office, we review the application and within a few days we can approve it.”
Bartholomew said the city is even willing to present evidence to a potential downtown business’ lending institution that the TIF grants are available to help in the loan process.
“We would certainly be willing to say these are the three programs this applicant qualifies for,” he said. “We can give [lenders] the documentation they can be approved for the project. If that helps, great.”
But a combination of the sluggish economy, and high rents and taxes in troubled developments like Metropolitan Square has dramatically slowed the influx of new businesses while some existing retailers have closed their doors.
Gerber, who remembers when downtown hosted the likes of Sears and Walgreen’s, said specialty small stores are the answer.
“We could use about 10 boutiques,” he said. “Women’s stores, children’s stores. On this block, you got a shoe store, a jewelry store, four beauty shops and two cleaners. That’s all you got on the block besides Leona’s and Sugar Bowl. And Leona’s doesn’t even open ‘till 4, and they close early at 10.”
Wanted: jeweler as competition
Several doors away from Square Deal Shoes is Heather Wahl, fifth-generation proprietor of R.C. Wahl Jewelers. Begun in 1894 in Chicago, R.C. Wahl has been at its present location since 1949. Heather Wahl would welcome a competing jewelry store, and more.
“We love all things jewelry,” she said. “Years ago, Slavin [jewelers] was in downtown Des Plaines, and that was good for us. We had a certain group of products that was available for clients. They had a different group of products. It expanded the options; it was complementary.
“Any destination businesses are good for us, whether an antiques store, a clothing store, any kind of independent, service-oriented retail operation. The Mosaic Yarn Studio across the street is good for us. Places where people want to come to work with an expert in the field. I’d like to see more restaurants here. The more restaurants you have, it’s a destination. Cheeseburger in Paradise was doing well here, and they had a lease issue in their building. It was a great destination.”
The most established downtown restaurant is Sugar Bowl, a half block west of Square Deal and R.C. Wahl. In operation continuously with one interruption since 1922, the family diner was purchased a year and a half ago by Stacy Bouras.
“I’d like to see a department store,” Bouras said. “A clothing store. A full-time [movie] theater by far would help.”
Sugar Bowl lunch patron George Alfonso of Des Plaines also endorsed an apparel shop. “I’d like to see more restaurants,” he said. “I’d do more shopping if they had more variety.”
A caveat for new businesses thriving in downtown Des Plaines is outside appearances are deceiving, said Gerber. The concentration of condo and apartment buildings in the immediate area logically provides for built-in business. Yet many of those residents are financially strapped, Gerber said.
“They can’t even pay their [condo] association fees,” he said. “They come in here looking for $12 and $20 shoes. They sold their homes, which were paid for, and all they had to pay were taxes. Then they came into these condos. Their values dropped a lot.”