Highland Park City Council’s main order of business was business on Feb. 27.
With concerns on the City’s economic vibrancy on the rise, City Manager Ghida Neukirch and Business Development Manager Carolyn Hersch led a presentation on the City’s business incentive programs. Council members then offered feedback on how the City can better attract and retain commercial enterprises.
More than 800 businesses and eight business districts are located in Highland Park, Neukirch said, adding that she believes Highland Park is seen as a leader among its peers in business development.
In recent years, the City has added and promoted business-forward programs like Food Truck Thursdays and events at The Lot, a transformed parcel at Central and St. John’s that hosts concerts, outdoor dining and more during warmer-weather months.
Hersch added that over the past two years the City’s vacant-storefront inventory has shrunk.
Despite the positives, multiple council members commented that business owners and prospective business owners have shared their concerns about City processes, and community members continue to criticize the remaining vacancies, most of which are located in the Central Business District, also known as downtown Highland Park.
The presentation detailed the City’s inventive programs, such as conditional sales tax rebates ($4.3 million rebated since 2021, according to City documents); and facade improvement grants of up to $5,000 ($112,974 granted since 2001).
Hersch estimated that 10 local businesses have applied for City incentive grants in the past two years, and none have been turned down.
Neukirch and Hersch also detailed the City’s previous incentive programs as well as concepts once considered by either staff or the council
According to City documents, Highland Park could consider reductions in permit and development fees, site and landscape improvement grants, an expansion of the facade grant program, a loan program, and a marketing grant to offset promotional costs, among other things.
While council members commended Hersch and company for their efforts, multiple requested more data to help define the current state of commerce in Highland Park. They also made business-focused suggestions of their own.
Councilmember Adam Stolberg would like to see more information on the health of current businesses to aid in retention.
“We need to focus a little more on helping businesses that are already here,” he said. “One way to limit vacancies is to not add to them.”
Stolberg and Councilmember Andres Tapia want more specific data on the incentive programs and what business owners think of them.
Tapia also said the City is lacking a vision for its business districts.
“We need more data but even more than that we are missing a bigger vision … of what we want (Ravinia and Central business) districts to look like,” he said. “How do we decide which strategy and tactic we want if we don’t know what the vision is. What kind of businesses do we want to attract?”
Tapia also suggested bringing in an outside expert to provide fresh eyes and objectively analyze Highland Park’s commercial landscape.
Mayor Nancy Rotering also urged staff to check in on new occupants that filled the vacancies, to see “are they up and running? how are they doing? If they aren’t up and running, what can we do to help?”
With the feedback, Hersch and Neukirch plan to return to the council in the coming months, possibly April, with an updated presentation.
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