A couple of weeks ago at the , I wondered aloud what it might be like if someday we lived in a world where small, locally owned businesses forced the Walmarts and other big-box retailers out of business.
I didn't conceive it as an applause line or anything. I really believe a world like that would be a place we'd all enjoy living. I also think that day is coming, inevitably, as large-scale retail operations collapse under the weight of their massive supply lines and rising costs.
There was some agreement among the people at the forum, and I like to think that for a second we all imagined the Walmart bulldozed and turned into a park across 95th Street from a town center housing local businesses, local restaurants and catering to local residents. What kind of businesses? Forum participants mentioned a book store, a craft store, a grocery store, a live music venue, apparel stores, restaurants, a foreign/independent film theater, a pet store, a coffee shop and a spa.
The thing is, as was pointed out at the meeting, Evergreen Park has had locally-owned stores of the kind suggested at the forum and some have failed. The example of the Sonoma Coffee Café in the strip center on 95th Street between Mozart and Francisco was brought up. Someone made the point that here was a local coffee shop, just like many of us say we want, but when it came time to pay the rent, not enough people supported it.
There are a lot of factors that contribute to the success or failure of a local business. Foot traffic is certainly one of them, but so are lease terms, overhead costs, the quality of the service and the fiscal aptitude of the owners. All I really know about the Sonoma Coffee Café is that for a while it was there when we'd drive by and then it wasn't. We didn't stop because whenever we were going by we were on our way to someplace else. It was a little far for us to walk to, and frankly when we're home we make coffee in the kitchen.
And anyway, this isn't about the Coffee Café. But after our forum, participants finished their wish list for businesses that could go in a revamped Plaza development, we discussed obstacles to those businesses' success. The perception of crime in the Plaza/Walmart area is one major obstacle. We all know the police bust a lot of shoplifters at Walmart. And a couple of people said they felt genuinely unsafe at the Plaza. Others said they visit the mall regularly and have never felt threatened in any way. But there is a perception that the closer one gets to Chicago, the more likely one is to encounter crime. All you have do to is read the comments on Patch to know people in Evergreen Park fear Chicago's crime spilling into the village. So crime, or the perception of it, can be a major factor in determining the success or failure of a business, or a neighborhood.
But crime, or fear of it, shouldn't be a factor in deciding what takes the place of . If we build a we're committing to a short-term future of auto-centric chain stores and a parking lot that empties out at night. If we build a town center, we can build the flexibility to adapt to a long-term future ruled by smaller, local businesses and a continuous community.
The Evergreen Parkers (and one Beverly resident) who came to the forum have some fabulous ideas that could make for a vibrant centerpiece for Evergreen Park and the Southwest Side. We'll be presenting those ideas to the village board next week, and posting them to Patch. And we will continue the conversation.