By Igor Studenkov
For the Bugle
The Village of Niles Board of Trustees will soon consider an ordinance that will turn a southern portion of the Milwaukee Avenue into a Home Improvement and Design District – the first of its kind in Illinois.
According to a presentation to the village board during the Aug. 22 Informal Consideration session, the idea is to take advantage of the already existing businesses that deal with home improvement and design and turn it into a retail destination not just for Niles, but for the entire north and northwestern area of Chicago. The Village of Niles and the Niles Chamber of Commerce would team up with the corridor businesses to create a business district, which would use funds from membership dues and some village investment to try to attract more businesses. The village hopes to launch the district some time in early 2018.
The district was developed by the Niles Economic Development and Neighborhood Renewal Commission’s South Milwaukee Revitalization Sub-Committee although the original concept went back further than that.
Sub-commiteee member Mike Shields told the village board that he read an article last year talking about how home improvement businesses tended to be more resistant to economic downturn and loss of business to online retailers than other brick-and-mortar businesses. As he drove down Milwaukee Avenue, he realized it was something Niles could capitalize on.
“I drove down a busy Milwaukee Avenue, between Oakton and Howard, and noticed that there were five home improvement businesses, mainly kitchen and bath,” Shields said. “They were all doing pretty well. [I thought] ‘why couldn’t Niles develop the entire district, as a destination’? Not just for the Niles, but for entire metro Chicago. At least for northern and [northwestern] parts.”
He reached out to Alan Zielinski, owner of architectural design business Better Kitchen Inc., a member of the Economic Development and Neighborhood Renewal Commission’s Executive Committee. They hashed out the idea on August 2016. They decided to take a cue from West Hartford, Conn., which launched a Home Design District along its own major thoroughfare–New Park Avenue. The Niles version would run along Milwaukee Avenue from Oakton Street to the Niles/Chicago border. According to the map included in the presentation, there are already multiple home design businesses between Oakton and Howard streets, as well as south of Touhy Avenue.
In January 2017, the Milwaukee Revitalization Sub-Committee met for the first time. Over the next few months, it would refine the concept and develop a logo.
Shields told the board that the district would have a lot going for it: Milwaukee Avenue is Niles’ busiest thoroughfare, and the closest thing it has to a downtown. There is a high percentage of home ownership in Niles and other nearby suburbs. And Shields had confidence in the home improvement industry in general and the southern Milwaukee Avenue businesses specifically.
“The home design improvement businesses is relatively recession-proof,” he said. They’re going to go down, but they’re not going to collapse.”
Shields also touted the longevity of many existing businesses, as well as the kind of service customers aren’t likely to get in larger chains.
“It’s not going to be like going to Home Depot,” he said. “When people spend money on homes, they sometimes spend the big bucks. And they want to sit down with [someone] they can trust.”
Zielinski spoke next, saying that his family owned Better Kitchen Inc. for the past 60 years. He said that the district wasn’t going to try to replace businesses that already exist on southern Milwaukee Avenue, rather, it would try to encourage businesses that fit the theme to move into vacant spaces. And those aren’t the only businesses the district would try to attract.
“We have some thoughts of adding restaurants, so that after some design meetings that often are 4-5 hours long, our clients can then begin discussions and continue toward their goals [while eating out],” Zielinski said.
He also went into the detail about how the district would be run, saying that the business owners would elect the board of directors, which would be in charge of marketing, attracting new businesses and issuing annual reports. While the village and NCCI would help the district at first, it is meant to become completely self-sufficient after a few years.
Ross Klicker, the Niles Economic Development Coordinator, said that the village will benefit from more sales tax revenue. Mayor Andrew Przybylo has previously said that Niles must find a way to maintain and grow sales tax revenue in order to avoid the alternative – raising property taxes and cutting services.
Klicker also said that he believed that it would encourage more development.
“We believe that there will be multiplier effect,” he said. “It’s going to energize this section of Milwaukee Avenue.”
Klicker said that the village is thinking about replicating the concept with some other theme in other parts the avenue.
“Arts and Culture Advisory Council – they are looking at creating an art district,” he said. “Maybe there will be other art district on Milwaukee Ave.”
Klicker said that he hoped to start the process of creating the district in September.
“We will then be coming back next month – if you believe this district is worthwhile – with resolution and proclamation for the district,” he said. “We want to launch it to public in early 2018.”
Trustee Denise McCreery, who served as NCCI’s director in the past, asked if the businesses that would move into the district would get any incentives. Klicker replied that they wouldn’t.
Trustee Joe LoVerde, who served as president pro tem at that meeting due to Przybylo’s absence, asked if the sub-committee was confident that the district businesses would be able to compete against online retailers and major retailers such as Home Depot and Costco.
“We are a coach, and we’re here to assist our clients,” Zielinski replied. “That’s type of professionals that we are, that’s why clients come to us.”
Former trustee Rosemary Palicki wondered if the district would require any investment on the village’s part.
“There will be initial marketing costs,” Klicker replied. “There will be initial investment that will be needed from the village, but we believe that it would be minor.”