City expands storefront modernization assistance

Billy Kobin, Reporter

Evanston hopes to reach more retail stores through its storefront modernization program by funding interior renovations in addition to external projects, aiming to help local stores stay in competitive business districts.

The expansion of the city program is intended to help businesses impacted by the higher rent in downtown Evanston and the city’s business districts, said Paul Zalmezak, an Evanston economic development official.

“One of the things we learned was that … a way to incentivize retail development (was) we could help businesses with these improvements,” Zalmezak said. “If we could help small business build out spaces, then that would help retail.”

The city program provides forgivable loans for exterior improvements and some interior improvements to street-level commercial buildings in the city. The maximum funding amount for exterior improvements is $25,000 and $50,000 for a combination of interior and exterior improvements.

The program saw a rise in program participation in the last few years, jumping from zero businesses participating in 2013 to 11 businesses in 2015, according to city data. However, the next step is to increase the program’s visibility as well as knowledge about the expanded coverage for renovations, Zalmezak said.

“We’ve got some more work to do in making sure retailers know this program exists,” Zalmezak said.

In the past five years, 40 projects have been approved within the program. The program provides a financial incentive for property owners and their commercial tenants to reinvest in the appearance of their business or property, Zalmezak said.

According to data from the Economic Development Committee, 32 percent of grants disbursed between 2011 and 2016 have gone to businesses in the southern “Chicago/Main/Dempster” area and 27 percent of grants have gone to businesses in downtown Evanston.

Although the program expanded to include more possible renovations, restrictions remain. For example, restaurants and national chain stores are not eligible for funding through the program, Zalmezak said. Eligible exterior improvements include signage, awnings, windows and doors, according to city documents.

Because of the program’s expansion, Dance Center Evanston, located in the city’s West Village district, will be able to provide a theater to a community that needs one, founder Béa Rashid, said. The studio has offered dance lessons to people of all ages in the community for more than two decades, but the center has lacked its own theater space for performances.

“The one thing that I felt was really lacking within our community is adequate performing space for dance,” Rashid said.

In the past, Dance Center Evanston has had to rent space for performances at Northwestern’s Louis Theater or the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Rashid said, adding that although those spaces are nice, they were expensive and not always available.

“What I really wanted was a performing space that would allow us to do some smaller scale productions (and) more experimental productions and be able to provide performing opportunities more often,” Rashid said. “(This theater) is going to basically fill a huge need in the community, which is a medium-sized, professional performing space.”

Rashid said the financial support from the city will help expand and improve Dance Center Evanston.

“It’s really great to be able to go to the next level, which is to actually provide a viable performing space for performing groups,” she said. “And so I’m very grateful to the city.”

Zalmezak said looking toward the future, the program is meant to help local retail businesses expand, especially in areas dominated by restaurants and entertainment venues.

“We’re trying to incentivize retail in the districts that are doing really well, and then (for) the ones that are a bit more challenging, we’ll consider all business types,” Zalmezak said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

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