Joe Flanagan was “sad to see downtown so substantially impacted by the pandemic.”

So the long-time Evanston resident, and Chair/CEO of downtown-based Acquirent, decided to do something.

After talking with former Mayor Steve Hagerty and current Mayor Daniel Biss, Flanagan put together an informal but high-powered task force of business leaders. Creation of the panel, Flanagan says, is “an opportunity for the city to look at itself and see what we can do better” to make Evanston an improved place for companies and workers to locate, or stay, or to even just come back after 18 months of working remotely.

“There’s no budget, no staff, no authority,” Flanagan says about the group. “It’s just concerned citizens and business owners who want to see the city recover.”

Another of those concerned corporate citizens is ZS, an international business consulting firm also based in Evanston.

ZS is donating its time and expertise with a survey of various Evanston stakeholders, such as workers and business owners, to “study how people perceive Evanston, and ways in which barriers to returning to Evanston can be reduced or eliminated,” says the company’s principal officer, Tobi Laczkowski.

Laczkowski notes that nearly 1,000 survey responses have already come in, “far exceeding our initial expectations, and delighting the participants.”

Northwestern University is also involved with the task force. NU vice-president Craig Johnson, a member of the panel, is quoted by the university as encouraging the Northwestern community to take part in the survey. The end result, Johnson says, could be recommendations which help both the city and NU.

City officials are clearly interested in whatever findings and recommendations the survey discovers. Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak tells Evanston Now that business used to bring 30,000 workers downtown each day before the COVID pandemic hit.

Therefore, it’s important, Zalmezak says, for business to have a “voice at the table” when it comes to workforce development, spending federal COVID relief dollars and getting downtown employees back downtown.

“Are there things the city can do to accelerate economic recovery?,” adds Laczkowski, of ZS. “That’s ultimately what we would like to learn.”

And despite the challenges of economic recovery, the man who put together the business group is confident in Evanston’s future.

Says Joe Flanagan, “I’m totally optimistic.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.