What Downtown Geneva Doesn't Need

I'll just keep repeating "Joe Stanton is Always Right, Joe Stanton is always right ..."

Joe! I’m trying! I’m really trying! Despite the obvious and ongoing onslaught of evidence supporting my dark downtown Geneva prognosis, I’m doing my darnedest to cling to the precipice of your far-more-idealistic vision of our business district’s future.

I was barely holding on by one trembling hand when those four alderman called a March 14 special City Council meeting at the to give the downtown merchants an audience. That proactive measure gave me just enough hope to start climbing back up the cliff.

But then the Geneva Economic Development Commission submitted their report outlining what they believed to be the downtown’s most pressing needs, and I’m back to barely hanging on by the fingernails of my tired left hand.

And here’s their highly anticipated top five list:

  1. Attention to landscape aesthetics
  2. Additional parking
  3. Improved pedestrian circulation and sight lines
  4. Upgrade of utilities, fire and life safety building improvements
  5. Preservation of historic buildings

Before we continue, for the record, let me state that I and all Genevans are grateful for the time, energy and expertise so freely given by the fine folks serving on that commission.

And I have to say our esteemed group of local businessmen and women pretty much nailed the three most serious challenges to hit downtown Geneva since the Internet. To paraphrase:

  • Increased competition
  • Reduced customer base due to the relocation of Kane County courts/government offices, hospital and clinic facilities and their clientele.
  • Evolution into a tourism destination where half of the businesses aren’t open later than 6 p.m. contributing to the situation where the district is not collectively generating sufficient revenues.

Considering they so reasonably diagnosed the disease, I’m more than stunned by their prescription for a cure. They’re certainly correct about north end parking, but the remaining items on their list wouldn’t even crack my top 10.

Aesthetics and sight lines? While those are important features of any vibrant downtown, that’s the one thing Geneva’s already got going on. We’re head and shoulders above any downtown I’ve seen outside of Naperville. Most municipalities would give their collective right arm to have the equivalent of our Third Street.

Upgrading utilities, addressing safety issues, and preserving historic buildings are worthwhile endeavors, but they’re better handled by the City Council because they do absolutely nothing to bring businesses and shoppers to downtown Geneva.

Aren’t code enforcers supposed to take care of those things?

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why “encouraging store owners to maintain evening hours” wasn’t at the top of that list. It would appear to me that the commissioners have fallen into the trap of telling the merchants what they want to hear and not what they need to hear.

Per the city of Geneva’s own website, “(Economic Development) Commissioners must be willing to assist in identifying community issues and vision, and assist in economic development activities, such as business retention and recruitment.”

And it’s gonna take more that sightlines and aesthetics to retain and recruit new businesses, which is exactly where this group should be putting most, if not all, of their boundless energy. Better folks than I have said it before: We need to give shoppers a real reason to come to downtown Geneva—a grocery store, for example—not a prettier postcard.

We need to attract exciting enterprises like an Apple Store, a Gap, or a Chicos—the kind of businesses that will attract a younger crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I love my independent stores, but the last thing downtown Geneva needs is another overpriced furniture shop.

I realize this kind of thinking might mean the end of some enterprises, but sometimes you have to prune the tree to make it healthier.

To make matters worse, the commission then took a nose dive off that same cliff by proposing a maximum additional 1 percent downtown sales tax to pay for those inconsequential improvements.

“The commission believes that additional sales tax can be imposed without producing a counterproductive competitive environment and will not affect the long term viability of the downtown,” the report stated.

No, it can’t!

Don’t get me wrong, I love the thought of people paying their own way, but do we really want to give folks another reason to turn to the Commons? When you consider the looming prospect of three empty Third Street and State Street stores, imposing a downtown surtax would be the height of lunacy.

So, Joe! The only thing preventing me from letting go and taking that precipitous plunge is your downtown vision and the prospect of something positive coming out of that March 16 special council meeting.

Because if that five-point list is the best Geneva can do, not even you can save us from ourselves.

Charles Emout March 07, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Nice article Jeff, I agree with much of what you've said. When you look at the downtown, the day/age it was initially developed for was a very different time, and given the preassures of the many vying interests on the various city boards/commissions it's hard to truly remain competative. Take for instance the idea of bringing in a trendy new store (such as an Apple Store or Gap) as a "destination" location ... much of our downtown was built to cater to the "quaint shop" business model, so the question becomes, "Where would you put it?" Additionally, many of these "destination" businesses have very specific siting criteria -- some want an "end cap" location, others have specific square footage-parking-and traffic count requirements -- so it's not always as simple as "we have a unique space, why wont they fill it?" While I can certainly think of a few downtown locations that have little to no historical or architectural value to me -- that would be prime candidates for tear down/infill commercial development -- I'm sure those words probably just sent a member of the Historical Commission (or some other well meaning city committee) into violent convulsions.
Martha Hanna March 07, 2012 at 06:25 PM
Downtown Naperville does it.
Charles Emout March 07, 2012 at 07:03 PM
Yes, they do, but I'm not suggesting Geneva needs to reinvent itself as "the new Naperville." Frankly, Naperville's unique demographics, size, and having North Central College a block off their "main drag" position them to attract downtown development that Geneva never will. That's not to say that some of the same principles of tear down/infill development can't be applied (please, no more banks though!). We certainly have had some nice examples of such development along State St. between Third & Sixth Streets (Mr. Stanton's buildings, the Geneva Theater renovation, and the former Shell station turned Private Bank development come to mind), but in my opinion these do little to help the 3rd Street shops. I suppose an argument could be made to suggest that Shodeen's redevelopment of Dodson Place at the far south end of 3rd Street could be viewed as a recent positive tear down/infill development - but again "quaint shop" mentality & no large/midsize "destination" store to help drive traffic to the area.
Tracy Paddy March 08, 2012 at 11:07 PM
I really would be sad if Geneva went the way of Naperville. When I moved to Illinois in 1991, Naperville had a charming downtown community. Now it's hardly recognizable, and the quality stores and restaurants that many depended on had to move or go out of business because the rents went sky high with all that "big business" that moved in and helped changed the face downtown Naperville. It's hard to park there any longer, traffic is obscene, and the charm is definitely gone. Adding evening hours means having the income to pay for those hours, or sacrificing an evening at home with family to cover those hours and not increase payroll. While it might sound good to some, obviously it's not feasible for all. Shopping in DT Geneva has never equated with buying clothing for families in the time I have lived in this area. Nor is it a place that does a lot of marketing for men. Most of the shops are geared towards women. DT Geneva is a place for shopping trips with friends, lunch out or dinner out with friends and finding items for the home, small and large. It's not very much a town that supports a family going out for a day of shopping. It would be nice if DT Geneva could build on evolving it's market to more ages without going the way of GAP, or any other major chain. They'll drive the rents up, and all the small, independent business owners will have more difficulties, and the town will lose it's charm.
Jeff Ward March 09, 2012 at 01:14 PM
Tracy, I don't want Geneva to go the way of downtown Naperville, I want the best of both worlds and I think it certainly possible. Even malls have their "anchor" stores to bring in business to the rest of the merchants. And few well placed anchor stores would bring in a heck of a lot of business without driving up rents. As far as evening hours, if downtown merchants don't want to put in that kind of effort, then they shouldn't have started a business in the first place. In 2012, evening hours are generally required if a store wants to stay in business. If they can't pull it off then they should consider working for someone else. I agree that DT Geneva has become a day trip destination, but I don't think that's enough to keep it going. Like all business districts, it has to evolve to stay vibrant. Charm can only get you so far. Jeff


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