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The Growing Business: Planting Seeds in a Community

It was a spring afternoon in 2006, when the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance convened a ‘big tent’ meeting of community stakeholders in the Jensen Room to provide input on a plan to bring back neighborhood retail stores.

There was a noted optimism in the air. In the years since major factory closings left entire blocks rocked by dwindling household incomes, community organizations and local banks began efforts to spur reinvestment, engaging local residents in a push to encourage new housing and retail construction. Their work bore fruit as the residential landscape started to transform with scale.

Multi-family buildings, condo units and grey-stone rehabs popped up throughout the area, eventually leading Business Week to add Garfield Park to the list of Top 10 Growing Neighborhoods in the country (2007). In their minds, now was the perfect time to be vocal on what was next on the horizon…  commercial development.

Meeting regularly over the coming year, residents, business owners, local clergy, the Greater Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce, retail experts, and even the UIC Urban Design Center met to make critical decisions on the composition and ‘feel’ of local commercial corridors and intersections. Those present became part of a steering team known as the ROADMAP Committee, who were project partners in a new effort to revitalize and redevelop Garfield Park’s commercial sites.

Fast forward to 2010, and the products of their labor and feedback, a document entitled ‘Quality and Opportunity: A Retail and Urban Design Plan’, has become a blueprint for stabilizing retail in East Garfield Park. Everything from the research contributed by graduate students, maps showing leakage (retail dollars spent outside the community), and the retail strategy’s principles were all put towards a focused program.

“Those meetings were great. We had a broad base of input and were able to turn that energy into real work at the street level. After completing several street-scaping projects, including a public plaza, a gateway public art project, and more trees and pedestrian lighting along Madison Street, we realized that a fully funded position and program was needed to get more done,” says Mike Tomas, Director of the East Garfield Park New Communities Program.

Today, the Garfield Park Retail and Real Estate Initiative, a program working to leverage the community’s residential growth to jumpstart local retail development, is fully operational. Staffed by Malik Elliott, a graduate of UIC’s Graduate School of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, the Initiative’s primary objective is to add more commercial enterprise to Garfield Park which will bring better quality goods and services while adding jobs. As a result, the Initiative separates its efforts along ‘Retention’, ‘Redevelopment’ and ‘Revitalization’ work tracts.

The ‘Retention’ tract allows the Initiative to serve as a resource center for local businesses looking to optimize their capacity or access information on marketing. ‘Redevelopment’ allows it to do the same for local property owners, connecting them with real estate and property specific programs. The ‘Revitalization’ work area promotes the community to regional and national developer interest and also coordinates events such as seminars and workshops for the local base of businesses and owners.

The Garfield Park Retail and Real Estate Initiative are proof that one meeting can spark real change. The program is now engaging existing businesses, local property owners and retailers looking to expand into Garfield Park and connecting them with resources and viable project sites. The promotion of the community’s land opportunities, great location and neighborhood assets such as the Garfield Park Conservatory has already started to be heard by national retailers looking to be present in the area. In June 2010, CVS Pharmacy will break ground at Madison and Kedzie, becoming the first national retailer to enter the market in decades.

Posted in Garfield Park Retail and Real Estate