Take a trip down Harlem Avenue through Palos Heights, and the strip that runs from about 122nd Street to 124th Street stands out. The small shops, many of which are locally owned, create a small-town Main Street feel not often found in the ever-expanding south suburbs.
But the reliance on small businesses owners to fill up those storefronts poses a challenge, especially in today's economic climate.
Where It Stands
Just this week, the Palos Heights City Council gave the go-ahead to two new businesses to open up shop. Fine Arts Stageworks will relocate to a more prominent spot, and a dog training and pet shop will move into town.
"I view it like there is a light at the end of the tunnel," said Alderman Jack Clifford, chair of the Planning and Zoning Committee, about the increase in retailers interested in setting up shop in Palos Heights.
Jim Furey is the community development coordinator for Palos Heights. He says that interest is slowly but surely picking up.
"In the last 20 months, by my count, there are going to be 12 new businesses in that two-block area between 122nd and 124th streets," Furey said.
Those new tenants include: Papa's Fresh Foods, Angelique's Boutique, Tio's Tacos, Sperone's, International House of Couture, United Trust Bank, Chalet Florist, Shirley's Place, New Wilmer Liquor, Fine Arts Stageworks, Pack Leader Academy and The Puppy Shop, which has since closed.
While businesses have also left in that time frame, Furey says the city's ability to attract new tenants is a positive sign.
"I think it is still tough out there," he said. "Rent rates are lower than they were 20 months ago. There is a lot of available commercial property, so businesses who are opening up have that to their advantage."
The latest numbers for vacancy rates date back about six months. At that time, about 15 percent of B-zoned properties—those that produce sales tax—stood empty, Furey said.
"We are down to a manageable number of stores to lease out," Mayor Bob Straz said. "It is better than it was a year ago."
A Balancing Act
It is clear from recent votes that the City Council aims to preserve downtown Palos Heights as a retail center, insuring sales tax revenue. Last month the Council denied the petition of a financial advisor looking to open up shop.
Nick Carras, of Carras Corporation, which owns the shopping center located at 12228 to 12246 S. Harlem, was hoping to add the financial advisor as a tenant.
He said all of his tenants have been given concessions that allowed them to stay open.
“When retail comes, we would be more than happy to put it there,” Carras said.
While addressing the council, Carras argued that filled storefronts are better for the community than vacant ones and would bring additional traffic to the area.
“I think even though we might lose a little (sales tax), we gain it somewhere else,” Carras said.
The question of which types of businesses should exist downtown is a delicate one that arises with each new petition.
"Sales tax is one of the reasons we would like as much retail as possible," Clifford said.
When a service-oriented business moves in, the city generates revenue only from property taxes. However, Straz makes the point that property tax revenues can go up when businesses invest in their properties.
United Trust Bank, of which Straz is an employee, recently opened on Harlem Avenue after investing about $3 million in renovations, Straz said.
He says service businesses also can provide a customer base for nearby restaurants.
"When I go down Harlem Avenue, I see professionals eating in those restaurants all the time and I think that is a good thing," Straz said.
Straz does agree that a mix of different types of businesses is ideal for the area.
The family-owned business feel of the downtown area also weighs on the minds of officials.
"You can count the number of chains on two hands," Furey said. "I think that is something that separates Palos Heights from a lot of other communities."
When Fine Arts Stageworks was approved, aldermen remarked on the benefits of having an arts center in the downtown area.
"I think when you look at the bigger picture of what businesses bring, there is a difference between what an office brings, and what something like Fine Arts Stageworks brings," Furey said.
Perhaps the two biggest opportunities for development are the former Ben Franklin site and the now-for-sale parcel of land at College Drive and Harlem Avenue. The site was to be the home of the NorthPointe development, but is now up for sale.
Furey says the Ben Franklin site has garnered some interest from potential occupants.
The former NorthPointe site also has seen some interest, though the large size of the lot and any development that would occur there makes it a substantial undertaking.
"This is a hard economic time, especially for commercial real estate and large properties," Straz said.
Furey says community members have made it clear that a retail center would be ideal and a mix-use space would have many benefits.
Moving Toward the Future
When Straz sat down for a video interview with Patch at the start of the year, he made it clear that the Harlem business district would be a major focus for the city.
In the past few months, a computer-generated model of potential new developments has been created to give interested parties an idea of what new modern construction could look like in that area.
Palos Heights also has partnered with Trinity Christian College to conduct a survey of business owners and determined their needs and concerns. Various municipalities along the Harlem corridor, including Palos Heights, also have partnered together to determine sites for possible future development.
The largest development project is the new Jewel to be built at 127th Street and Harlem Avenue. The modern structure will also offer new outlots. Wendy's already has lined up to fill one of those spaces.
"We have had people come to look at that site, and they then drive through other parts of the city and see what we have to offer," Furey said.
"I think it helps to create a unique sense of place," Furey said, "I think that these projects will be something you will see continue."
Local retailers have been approached to purchase banners that will hang on light posts in the downtown area. New light posts featuring illumination both on the street and sidewalks will go out to bid later this summer, Straz said. Asphalt also will be replaced with new pavers.
Straz also suggested that an initiative similar to the facade improvement program, in which the city would help property owners improve their parking lots, also is a possibility.
"It's about finding ways to bring people in," Straz said.