Evanston officials fretted at Wednesday night’s Economic Development Committee meeting about how to attract a more diverse range of retail businesses to the city’s shopping districts.
While reviewing an updated work plan for the city’s Economic Development Division, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the city is trying to promote “our quality of place” and attract distinctive new businesses — like the Little Beans play cafe — that provide “an amenity that people are really excited about.”
Bobkiewicz said that because of competition from Old Orchard and other shopping malls to the west, Evanston is not likely to attract many national retailers, but can look for regional or expanding local players.
Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, suggested Bonobos, an online clothing retailer with what it calls Guideshops in a limited number of locations, including one in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, where customers can try on clothes and then order items for home delivery.
And Bobkiewicz said something similar might be in the future for the downtown Evanston Radio Shack store — with Amazon said to be considering turning some RadioShack outlets into showrooms and pickup locations for selected items from its vast inventory. A prototype of that model recently opened at Purdue University.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said she was worried about what might replace the recently shuttered Pret a Manger restaurant across the street from Radio Shack at the Church and Sherman intersection.
Instead of another restaurant, Grover said, she “would love to see something retail there.”
She also complained that she can’t get a tennis racket or hosiery in town — with no sporting goods or women’s foundation shops here.
Bobkiewicz said that in some cases the landlords of commercial properties are an obstacle to getting the businesses that residents might find most appealing. A lot of the specialty shops don’t fall into the categories that landlords are thinking of if they’re looking for a national tenant who’ll pay top price in rent.
“Many of the landlords are not as concerned about the overall community mix as we are,” Bobkiewicz said.
“I don’t know the number of pizza restaurants that have come along. They’re high quality, and some are only choosing a handful of locations in the Chicago area. They want to be here and are paying good dollar,” he said, and when city staff talk to some landlords about doing something a little less conventional that might not yield as much in rent “their eyes glaze over.”
“But if we don’t make progress on this, we will lose the diversity that we need,” the city manager added.