45th Ward aldermanic candidates discuss business development at Feb. 3 chamber forum
by BRIAN NADIG
Candidates for the 45th Ward aldermanic race addressed storefront vacancies, parking issues and the proposed creation of a new taxing body for the Jefferson Park commercial district at a business forum on Feb. 3.
The candidates attending the forum were Alderman John Arena, Chicago police lieutenant John Garrido and former Beaubien School Local School Council member Michelle Baert, while a fourth candidate, attorney Michael Diaz, did not attend. The Jefferson Park and Gladstone Park chambers of commerce sponsored the event, which was held at the Gale Street Inn, 4914 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Garrido said that as alderman he would establish a business liaison who would work with prospective and existing businesses in the ward. “We want to do everything we can to make sure businesses stay here,” Garrido said.
In the past four years more than 200 businesses in the ward have closed or moved away, Garrido said. “We’ll try to get out in front of it instead of finding out they’re closing down,” he said.
In order to attract more businesses to the ward, there needs to be roadway and other public infrastructure improvements in the shopping districts, Garrido said. Safety improvements, such as bringing back beat officers who walk through the commercial areas, also should be considered, he said.
Baert said that she would create a small business advisory council to address the needs of business owners and that she would work with local chambers to cross-promote events and programs aimed at helping merchants. She said that she created the “45th Ward mom” Web site in an effort to better inform business owners and residents about activities in their community.
An on-line portal that would list services and incentives available for businesses in the ward also would be created in an effort to send the message to investors “that the 45th Ward is the place to go,” Baert said. Efforts also should be made to improve the curb appeal of each business district because “we need to make sure it always looks good,” she said.
Arena said that his office has an economic development coordinator who works with business owners and recruits new stores to the ward and that he also employs an art liaison who has worked to beautify vacant storefronts. He said that one of his goals has been to bring new art and cultural attractions to the ward because visitors to those activities will dine and shop at local businesses.
Arena said that he has worked with county officials to encourage changes in the property tax laws which allow landlords to continually receive tax breaks for keeping their storefront vacant and that a planned $25 million renovation of the Jefferson Park CTA Terminal, 4917 N. Milwaukee Ave., will go a long way to improving the curb appeal of the area’s business district.
On the issue of parking, Arena said that creating more parking is not the key to revitalizing a shopping district. “We haven’t added a single parking space, but we have added 30 new businesses (at Six Corners),” he said.
If “a destination is great,” shoppers will find a way to get there, Arena said. He added that the Jefferson Park business district does have some parking challenges because of the large crowds which attend events at the 1,890-seat Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave., and that parking solutions for that area will have to be explored when the gravel parking lots near the center are replaced with buildings.
Garrido said that there is “empty storefront after empty storefront” and that vacancy problems will not disappear until parking issues are addressed. “Are we going to try to fix after the fact? A lot of businesses are not going to wait for that,” he said.
Motorists who cannot find a parking space are more likely to skip shopping at a particular store rather than drive around the block several more times until a space opens, Garrido said. The Edison Park shopping district is successful in part because the chamber of commerce there operates two parking lots, he said.
Baert said that while focus should be getting “the anchor businesses and attractions first,” discussions about parking should be part of the planning process. She said that people buy home in the ward because they “want the garage in back” for their cars.
“They’re moving here to settle down and raise a family” and would prefer that parking is “readily available” when they take their family shopping, Baert said.
Also discussed at the forum was the proposed creation of a Special Service Area in the Jefferson Park business district.
The service area is funded through a newly created property tax, whose tax rate is set by a commission of local commercial property and store owners. The chamber is in the exploratory stages of creating a service area, which already is in place in the Six Corners, Sauganash and Belmont-Central business districts, and service area funds can be used to pay for a variety of services, including snow removal, landscaping and marketing.
Arena said that he would encourage the creation of the service area because he has seen the positive effects it has had at Six Corners, while both Garrido and Baert said that their support for the SSA would be contingent on the affected property owners’ approval of the taxing body’s creation.
“It is the most democratic of taxes that you can impose on yourself,” Arena said of an SSA. Tax funds collected by a service area must be spent on local improvements approved by the commission.
“There has to be community input, and it has to be marketed properly,” Garrido said of the proposed SSA. “You have to talk to the business owners.”
“It is about informing and educating the community and engaging them,” Baert said of the process. She said that business owners should be asked to vote on the issue and that she would go along with the outcome.
The Gladstone Park Chamber will host a 45th Ward aldermanic debate at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, at Hitch School, 5625 N. McVicker Ave.