Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer
Despite the rapidly changing retail industry, Evanston remains committed to fostering the success of small businesses, according to the city’s 2018 Economic Development Annual Report.
More than 40 new businesses opened in Evanston in the past year, including 30 new general businesses and 14 new food establishments, per the report.
“Despite the tumultuous shift in the retail economy, Evanston’s retail vacancy rate is the lowest it has been in ten years,” the report states.
The report comes in contrast to a 2017 survey of 850 small independent businesses across the country by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where 90 percent of businesses reported that online shopping sites, specifically Amazon, are having a negative impact on their revenue.
Although the large and growing influence of online companies like Amazon may threaten to crowd out small, local businesses, vacancy rates are at just 4 percent in Evanston, according to the report.
City manager Wally Bobkiewicz said small businesses can thrive in Evanston in part because the city is a “walkable community” and residents value shopping locally.
“People like the opportunity to take a walk in their neighborhood and be able to purchase goods,” Bobkiewicz said. “Amazon certainly has its place in the economy but I think here in Evanston people want (businesses) to be walkable, accessible. They want to know the people they’re doing business with.”
Bobkiewicz said the city provides a strong network of support for businesses through its established business districts that are supportive of newcomers. However, Bobkiewicz said the most important tool the city uses in economic development is its interest in small businesses.
He said the city tries to understand the issues facing small business owners and tailor the services they offer based on the needs of individual businesses. Such initiatives have allowed for the success of small businesses.
Bobkiewicz said although the threats posed by online shopping are real and clear, “small businesses in Evanston and everywhere recognize that and are trying to differentiate themselves.”
The report includes examples of such businesses that are ‘differentiating themselves’, like Assembly Creators Market on 1642 Orrington Ave., which sells handcrafted clothing, accessories and gifts.
Owner Reyes Witt said when conceptualizing her store, she wanted to ensure her customers “get a story from the products they’re purchasing.”
“Not only are they really great products, but they’re made with top-shelf ingredients,” Witt said. “There is somebody who’s running a small business that’s putting all of the quality into it.”
Witt said she started her business in Evanston last year because of the city’s strong economic development. She added that the Evanston community values what small businesses offer.
“They love it,” she said. “They’re excited about it. There’s a very creative and artistic community here in Evanston. People get it.”
She emphasized the importance of small business owners knowing what support and resources are available for them. When coming into a new community, she said figuring all that out can be a challenge. When she started her business, Witt said she got the sense that the city really wanted her store to be successful, which she said can’t be found in a lot of other places.
Witt said that for small business owners like her to succeed, they need a strong community and government.
“I feel like I hit the jackpot,” she said. “I feel like I couldn’t have ended up in a better place.”
However, some Evanston businesses still face hurdles to economic success.
The report said with limited space availability in the city, rents continue to rise, which may pose a challenge for smaller, independent businesses. Bobkiewicz said although high rent prices are a factor in a business’s decision to operate in Evanston, the large presence of customers who shop locally may balance the potential cost.
“Certainly those costs are a factor but one of the reasons we continue to see businesses locating here is this is a very dynamic place,” Bobkiewicz said. “There are a lot of people here who want to shop locally.”
Bobkiewicz also said the city should be considerate of barriers, like high rent costs, for small businesses going forward. From a city perspective, Bobkiewicz said there’s a continuous effort to make barriers as minimal as possible for independent business owners.
“Evanston’s the place to be,” Bobkiewicz said. “People want to live here, work here, go to school here, shop here. Businesses see an opportunity to reach customers here in Evanston.”
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