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Committee vote leaves spa owner stressed

red-door-spa

The owner of a small chain of health spas hoping to move into vacant space at Sherman Plaza in downtown Evanston had her request for facade improvement money turned down this week by the city’s Economic Development Committee.

The owner of a small chain of health spas hoping to move into vacant space at Sherman Plaza in downtown Evanston had her request for facade improvement money turned down this week by the city’s Economic Development Committee.

Beth Bortz, who co-owns the seven-store Asha Salon Spa chain with her husband Marc, said after the meeting that she felt shocked and blindsided by the committee vote.

She was hoping the committee would approve her request for a grant from the city program to cover half of the cost of replacing the awnings and illuminated signs at 1604 Sherman Ave. advertising the shuttered Red Door Spa with similar ones for her own business that she plans to move into the space. The lowest bids she’s received for the work total $25,000.

Committee members said they weren’t sure whether the program should be restricted to businesses with dilapidated buildings or  be used more generally to fund any business facade improvement work, including at properties like Sherman Plaza that are only a few years old.

Community and Economic Development Director Lehman Walker said his staff is in the midst of developing rules for the program, but at this point there’s little guidance available on what sorts of projects should qualify.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the lack of documentation was unprofessional. "It’s not appropriate and it’s not business-like," she said.

But Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, "I really don’t like the idea of using the neighborhood facade improvement money on a building that is the result of a downtown" tax increment financing district.. "TIF money should be used for that purpose," she added.

And the committee ended up suggesting Bortz apply for TIF funds instead.

Bortz said the real estate agent who had been pursuing her store as a possible tenant for the space for almost a year had led her to believe the city would be very accommodating and supportive of new business owners.

She said she and her husband were "very, very fearful" to take on such a sizable property in this economic climate, and they were depending on the city’s financial assistance.

"It’s going to be difficult," Bortz said. "It’s a second-floor space, it’s extremely large, and we’re crossing our fingers that we can make it work, but we’re going to need some help."

After Bortz left the Wednesday night meeting, the committee approved $17,500 for roof renovations and brickwork at the set of storefronts at 1459-1463 Elmwood Ave.

That property belongs to Ventura Realty and is "just a mess in terms of structure," said Ventura owner Randall Cohn.

He said the only business surviving there is the bakery Simple Gourmet. He said he needed to renovate the exterior to be able to lease the rest of the property to new tenants.

After approving Cohn’s funding, the committee voted to suspend the Neighborhood Storefront Improvement Program until the committee can review the proposed new guidelines being developed for it by the staff. Walker said those guidelines should be ready for the committee’s next meeting on July 28.

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