Evanston’s Economic Development Committee this week started considering possible revisions to the city’s façade improvement program as it approved two more grants.

The façade program — budgeted at $75,000 a year — forms only a small part of the city’s economic development efforts, which have involved over $10 million in spending this year.

Top: One of the businesses that received a façade grant last year was Central Street Cafe, which used the $9,400 in city money to help convert a former Blockbuster video store into its new location.

Community and Economic Development Director Steve Griffin said it’s often hard to judge the return on investment from the façade grants, in part because they most often go to existing businesses that probably would have remained in town whether or not they got the aid.

But he said that tattered awnings and other signs of neglect in a business district can negatively affect people’s attitudes about shopping there.

Griffin, in a report to the committee, identified several nearby communities that have similar programs, including Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village, Elmhurst, Mount Prospect, Oak Park and Skokie.

The program in Evanston offers grants of up to $10,000 for the first 35 linear feet of a business’s frontage, with the potential for $100 more for every extra frontage foot. The grants are limited to no more than 50 percent of the cost of the improvement project.

Limits in other towns range from $2,500 in Elk Grove Village to $50,000 in Skokie.

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said that despite the difficulty measuring the impact, she considers the program “another took in the toolbox” that the city should have — especially because it is being used in a lot of other communities.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said the program “does so much for the morale of  business owners” — even ones who don’t get the grants themselves, but see neighboring stores being spruced up.

But Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she believed the program should be limited to improvements that are typically the responsibility of the business-owner tenant in a builting — not the landlord.

The city shouldn’t be paying for building maintenance, she argued.

Fiske also suggested the city should do more outreach to businesses with ugly buildings.

“Some are in desperate need,” she said, “but never apply,” offering as an example the building on the northeast corner of Davis Street and Maple Avenue that houses the Davis Pantry and other shops.

“A little education, without any money, actually goes a long way,” Fiske suggested.

Griffin said that 19 businesses had been approved for the facade grants over the past 19 months.

Those projects totalled $110,000 and so far the city has actually spent $56,000 of they money approved.

Ten of the projects have been completed, six are still in process and three have been withdrawn.

The committee Wednesday night recommended approval for a $8,520 grant to Found Restaurant to install folding door-windows in a building at 1631 Chicago Ave. where it plans to open this fall.

And it approved part of a request from Minasian Rug Company at 1244 Chicago Ave. At Fiske’s request, the committee dropped funding for painting the building, but approved funds for new awnings.

Those requests now go to the full City Council for action.

The committee took no action Wednesday night on possible revisions to the façade program.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. money for facades but how about me?

    I take civic improvement seriously and personally.

    Whenever and wherever I walk in Evanston, and that is almost daily, I make it a point to pick up litter. Whatever it may be, no matter how disgusting, wet or dirty, I pick it up then put it in either the a trash bin or a recycling bin depending on the material. I am never without a handful of something and anyone who makes it a point to look for litter as I do will find it everywhere.

    I don't do this for praise or money, I do it because I want the town I live in to look better and I am physically able to make this contribution. I am out walking anyway, so why not pitch in?

    Once I walked past Ald. Grover's house doing my thing and she thanked me for it. I appreciate that. Thank you, ma'm, glad to help!

    But then I find out that the city is paying businesses to improve their facades.

    Maintaining the appearance of a business is part of the cost of doing business. When I patronize a local business I fully expect that part of what I am spending there will be used for upkeep, as it should be, I pay once.

    It turns out I am paying twice, once through my purchase and a second time with the local government volunteering my tax money and giving it to businesses. If there is a problem with facades, just as when there is a problem with derelict buildings, the city government can take legal measures for compliance, just as it can when there is a place where litter is a problem.

    Alderperson Glover apparently is fond of this facade program, but when she thanked me for picking up litter, she did not offer me public money to encourage me to continue doing so, nor did I expect her to, yet as I walk down Central Street doing my collecting I am continually improving facades all along the way at absolutely no cost to anyone. This means I am paying 3 times! Where do I apply for my subsidy?

    A citizen has responsibilities and so does a business. A cost of citizenship is taking the time to pitch in and help the community in any of many ways. A cost of doing business is to set aside some income for maintaining the appearance of the business.

    Do we help a business pay for its water or its electricity or its employees? If we do, it is no longer a self sustaining business but a welfare project and if the effect is to have lots of storefronts in operation it is only an illusion of successful business. This facade improvement program is hardly in the category of the big bank bailouts but the idea is the same – give money to help those that, being in business, should be providing for themselves. Your article has one alderperson lamenting that more businesses don't take the facade money, that it should be promoted!

    1. Couldn’t agree more

      Yes, we do seem to give away money for building improvements. Is there such a program for homeowners? A case could be made as it would improve the street view and increase property values, thereby increasing taxes.

      It is foolish for the city to give money away in this manner. Where we once may have had the funds to do so, I don't think we have that luxury anymore.

      1. Facade program: Tax giveaways

        Businesses should not be getting special favors in the form of our tax dollars.  Our tax dollars need to be spent on city services to improve our quality of life.  If the monies being spent on development were instead put toward any combination of – street cleaning, garbage pickup, water, our police force and paying down the pension debt – the result could be any of the following:

        • my street would be clean
        • yard waste would not cost close to $2 a bag to get rid of (much of the leaf debris we have taken away is from parkway trees anyway)
        • everyone might be more inclined to water parkway trees during this drought
        • the crime spree that has been going on in our neighborhood could have been nipped in the bud instead of continuing on for months now (virtually every neighbor has been robbed at least once… most in broad daylight and several during the night when they were in bed sleeping)
        • Our pension debt might not be so overwhelming

        We need to either work with our current aldermen to help them understand our value system and change the direction they are moving us in, or elect new people who are able to reign in our city employees and some of the ridiculousness they bring before Council.

  2. Property tax cycle

    Increases in value do not increase property taxes collected. 

    Property tax dollars required are a fixed cost. 

    The dollar amount of property taxes required by each local taxing body is how the property tax cycle begins.

    The total equalized assessed value of all property (after subtracted exemptions) in Evanston is divided into the money required by the taxing body to get their tax rate. 

    These rates are added, in addition to tax rates of other taxing bodies( i. e. Cook County, Metro Water Rec. etc.), determine the total tax rate in your area of Evanston. 

    Adding value to any property will lower the overall tax rate for everyone in Evanston and reduction in value of a property raises the rate for everyone in Evanston. 

    1. Tax suppression

      Which is why we want property inprovements made that increase the assessed value,  especially for commercial property because they pay at double per assessed dollar than residential, and that really ends up decreasing the tax burden upon residents.  

      One storefront getting improved often leads to others getting improved, which leads to attracting newer business,  which leads to commercial investments being made, ie this very building, which leads to higher commercial assessments, and sales taxes, which ultimately leads to much less pressure on residential tax bills, which leads to residents not having to pull the extra cash out of their pockets when the taxing bodies make their final determinations on how much to extract from r.e. taxes. 

      Money well spent when the whole process is thought through, especially with a timeline that looks further out than the end of one's nose.   


      1. Never looked even once

        I could care less about the facade, awnings, etc. of a building and esp. upgrades.

        If I know about a business I go in the door and don't pay attention to the exterior.

        If I'm looking for something I find where such a store is by the Yellow Book, Internet or recommendation. Once again I go inside and do my business.  I've never said to anyone "You should go to XXX because they have a lovely facade and you can look at their new awnings." 

        Anyone who pays attention to such things is by definition not a smart shopper and I have a bridge in NYC I could sell them.

        The Council may get votes from the owners who get the gifts but the taxpayer gets such with the bill—and the business if required to make the changes but not getting the 'gift.'

        1. The taxpayer isn’t getting “stuck” with anything

          Whether you personally care about exteriors is irrelevant.  Shopping districts that really succeed have not only the products people want at the price they want it at, they also have a great looking street presence that enhances the overall shopping destination experience. 

          Those districts become destinations for more than the simple utilitarian shopping of single product searches by local and only local residents like you describe. 

          Again, improved districts attract more and better quality stores, which means higher capital business investments, which mean increased property assessments, which means those commercial storefronts that pay double the dollars per assessed value create higher tax contributions, and the higher sales taxes, often times paid by outsiders because they were drawn to the area,  jobs, etc. all of which is ultiamtely of major, major benefit to residential taxpayers.  Benefits that exceed far and away the original small cost.   

          The taxpayer isn't getting "stuck" with anything. Actually, they end up receiving  tax relief that far and away exceeds the original "investment" they think they got "stuck" with.        


          1. More taxes and special favors to some is poor leadership

            Most of what you say is true except when government decides to GIVE certain businesses money but not others.  

            It's one thing when local government upgrades streets, sidewalks, street lights, install nice planters and upgrade and maintain mass transportation and so on. These things benefit the entire business community. It's quite another when local government that has been raising taxes double digits in the past few years decides to HAND OUT money to various businesses while rejecting applications of other businesses. 

            Who decides who gets what and why? It's a slippery slope of government favoritism. We have seen that  in full display when several Democrat mayors, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, publicly ridicule and threaten the livlihood of the owners of Chick-fil-A restaurants simply because the business owner has a differing politcal view.

            Could you imagine any Evanston aldermen dare approve a facade grant for a Chick-fil-A in Evanston if there were one?

            Another example would be the TIF created for one existing shopping center that was recently purchased from a private investor in a foreclosure. Millions of dollars that would otherwise go to our schools and city services will be redirected to spend upgrading the shopping center, though no details provided on what kind of upgrades that would be. Why should the owner of one shopping center get this special treatment but not other shopping center owners?

            Evanston aldermen just shelled out $2 million for a parking lot then agreed Trader Joe's could lease it for 75 years at a one-time cost of $50,000. In return, Trader Joe's moves in a location that is one block from two other grocery stores. Common sense says one of the three will not survive. My bet is on Whole Foods that already has a store several blocks north. 

            With that said, local property taxes in general have been consistently increasing as property values continue to decline. 

            The problem is we are taxing too much on businesses and real estate commercial property owners (and residenial property owners) in an extremely stressed out economy. They as well as their business tenants clearly need tax relief, an inviting local government that doesn't threaten businesses with smothering regulations such as a bag tax and not having to watch your competitor gets thousands of dollars of free money to upgrade their businesses.

            The bottom line is property owners and business owners are getting stuck, paying for these TIFS and business grants favoring some businesses and creating to a certain degree an uneven playing field. Do you think the owners of Jewel and Whole Foods on Chicago Ave. are happy that Evanston aldermen agreed to fork out $2 million to get Trader Joe's to open a store next to theirs?

            We have seen on the state level where legislators, mostly Democrats, had to cut special tax deals to keep Sears and CME in Illinois after Democrats in a 2010 lame duck session raised taxes more than 50 percent.  Yet, the vast majority of other businesses in the state do not get such a tax deal. Is that fair?

            The best solution is for Evanston aldermen to create a sense of an even playing field in the local business community. Talking about bag taxes, denying liquor licenses because the mayor disagrees with employee dress code, raising taxes or aldermen holding a press conference, demanding that a business not relocate sends a negative message to other business owners.

            We need but do not have common sense leadership in Evanston.

          2. right on Al

            .Business owners are there to make money.  The ability to make money is what brings a business to town, not the facade of other businesses.   If business owners feel an improved exterior will make them more money over the initial investment, a good business owner would do it on their own.

            Instead of picking favorites, city council should give tax money to put up holiday decorations on the streets, fix up sidewalks, clear the streets of snow, and clean up litter- things that favor none but improve the area for ALL.



          3. Right on Jen and Al

            It appears that common sense is something that is sorely missing from the city council, mayor, and city manager. Spending your way out of debt has never worked in the history of this country.

          4. right on Al

            .Business owners are there to make money.  The ability to make money is what brings a business to town, not the facade of other businesses.   If business owners feel an improved exterior will make them more money over the initial investment, a good business owner would do it on their own.

            Instead of picking favorites, city council should give tax money to put up holiday decorations on the streets, fix up sidewalks, clear the streets of snow, and clean up litter- things that favor none but improve the area for ALL.



          5. If they profit, then they should pay

            If stores profit from fixing their facade, then they should be the first ones to want  to fix-up their store to increase their profit. Or are they too dumb to realize that [if your theory is really correct] ?   If they are thus dumb then they probably won't run a profitable business in the first place and probably won't do so with their gift from the city and thus the city won't get the taxes.

            Instead the firm owners realize they won't profit from the changes but if they can get the taxpayer to pay for something then they might as well try to get "theirs."  Isn't that the way states, cities and firms have been doing for years, i.e. 'we don't need it but if others are getting something, we should get it too' since it is free money [of course taxpayers really pay for it].  That is how we got pork and earmarks that have got us in such problems.

            Given the 'art' the city has put up around town, I really doubt the Council or committes can judge what facade changes will [if it even would under the best judges] increase profits and other businesses.

            Smart shoppers are not fooled.  They look for value and quality.  The 'artsy' residents would not shop at these stores anyway.

          6. taxpayer?

            That money for improvement comes from taxpayers, if the "improvements" do not bring in enough revenue,  then taxes will go up. The higher taxes discourage new business and impact locals. It is a vicous circle.

            Wait until the school districts are given the task of funding pensions. Couple that with credit agencies response to REAL return rates on pensions, and then the size of the debt and taxes will balloon.

            Dream on.

          7. More of ‘You Didn’t Build it” ?

            The arguments about government making decisions like this sound like more of the 'you didn't build it" the government decided what to do to make you profitable and who to make profitable.

  3. No special favors here

    Lets use the building in the picture as an example.  The city invested all of $9400 to help assist convert that proper;ty into a restaurant from a blockbuster.  During the next triannual reassessment period is when the taxes will reflect the improvments made by the owner, probably around half a million dollars invested in that project all in, though that would include f f & e. 

    The increased taxes paid above and beyond what blockbuster paid will be paid annually, forever from here on out, plus the sales taxes and liquor taxes now generated will,  all by itself, easily surpass the $9400 in a short period of time. 

    And that will probably last for decades at least.   Fact is, once the capital intesive investment is made to convert into a restaurant, usually the property stay's a restaurant.  So whether the origianl owner succeeds or not becomes irrelevant, the property improvments, and the taxes associated with them, remain.

    Also, the owner probably has already paid close to that in permit fees to the city.  Not to mention there is probably several more local residents working than there were at blockbuster.  All in all, the residential taxpayer is the real and ultimate long term beneficiary of the short term grant.

    I will agree with Al that if certain people apply and are turned down while others receive the grant, then there is a problem, but I don't think that is the case at all.  This is not about favoritism, any business owner contemplating improvments but holding back because of the cost can apply.

  4. Human capital

    Besides all the physical needs of the city [roads, sewers, etc.] people have mentioned as better uses of taxpayer [it is our money not the Council or all their vast number of committees] money that are better uses—and more needed than parking lots, facades for businesses, etc.—what about using this 'extra' money the Council think THEY have, on human capital ?

    Maybe free or reduced tutoring for those who are behind in school—-and bring up not just the test scores but real knowledge so the human capital helps our economy.  What about tutoring for gifted students so maybe we will find a Larry Page who can boost Evanston's economy.

    The Council does not seem to know how to move the city ahead.  They seem to rely alot on consultants.   When the Central Street plan a few years ago proposed a hotel at Ryan Field I thought the consultants were dumb.  I now realize they were smart.  They saw how the Council and boards were rubes who would buy anything or even better give them a new contract [$$$] to come up with a new plan.  We see this same level of buy anything if some 'expert' says it it pretty.  Reminds me of the 'emperors new clothes' but this time the taxpayers pay for their not seeing the truth.

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