Evanston plans to launch Legacy Business Program this spring


Illustration by Seeger Gray

Evanston plans to highlight businesses age 20 and older through its new Legacy Business Program.

Cole Reynolds, Reporter

Economic Development Specialist Katie Boden remembers stepping off the train in Evanston for the first time years ago. Disoriented in an unfamiliar place, she wandered into Bennison’s Bakery.

“I feel like every time I see it, I think of my first time coming here,” Boden said.

Now, Boden is helping Evanston publicize long-standing businesses like Bennison’s through a new Legacy Business Program. The current version of the program hopes to highlight established, culturally-significant businesses through an online registry and branding campaign, city officials said. 

Thirty-two businesses will participate in the pilot program, which the project’s working group plans to launch this spring. The group is working with Glantz Design, a local graphic design firm, to build a website for the registry. 

“I think it’s time to focus on our long-standing businesses,” said Carl Klein, a member of the Preservation Commission who is also in the working group. “(The city) really hasn’t celebrated small businesses.”

Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) proposed the program. Her original proposal, which the Economic Development Committee accepted in June, planned to provide grants to long-standing businesses, drawing from about $160,000 in unspent economic development funds.

Ideally, Kelly said each eligible business would have received up to $50,000 if the city also earmarked American Rescue Plan Act money for the project.

Kelly modeled the proposal off of San Francisco’s Legacy Business Program, which provides up to $50,000 in funding to businesses 30 years and older that “contributed to San Francisco’s history or identity.”

However, preservation planner Cade Sterling, who is part of the working group, called directly funding businesses “high risk.”

Sterling said San Francisco’s program is designed to target the area’s skyrocketing rents. According to him, Evanston’s project is focusing on the “softer” option: promoting legacy businesses rather than supporting them financially.

“It’s more of a celebratory tool for these businesses and the contribution they provide to our collective memory,” Sterling said.

However, in the future, he said the working group might reconsider financial assistance.

Businesses must be at least 20 years old to qualify for Evanston’s program, and they must commit to minimizing physical and business model changes. Businesses must also “demonstrate a significant historic, economic, cultural, or social contribution to a population or community, neighborhood, or the City,” according to the project overview. 

Through an online application, anyone can nominate a business to be recognized, including the businesses themselves.

There is some flexibility to these criteria, Klein said. For example, Bookends & Beginnings is part of the pilot, despite opening in 2014. Because it opened in the same location as a former bookstore, it’s been included as a legacy business, Klein said. 

Sterling and Boden acknowledged that determining the significance of businesses — which have different meanings to different Evanston communities — is a subjective decision. But they said the open nomination process lets businesses and communities define significance for themselves in lieu of a strict assessment method.

“I think we will just be receptive to whoever wants to submit those nominations,” Sterling said. “By that nature, I think you will see a lot of diversity.”

Sterling anticipated the program would accept a majority of the nominated businesses. But should the program transition to provide funding, it will need more developed criteria, he said.

Sterling and Klein said the program isn’t just about preserving the status quo. They said long-standing businesses mentor and attract new ones. 

Klein pointed to Belgian Chocolatier Piron on Main Street, which partners with a new flower shop nearby. Klein also considered making mentorship a stipulation of the program, although Sterling said he doesn’t “think we’re at that point.”

“I think it’s a way of bringing some accountability to this,” Klein said of mentorship. “That it’s not just continuing to privilege of all these businesses that have been around for a while.”

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Twitter: @charcole27

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