November 21, 2014

Champaign nonprofit group pulls for more retail downtown

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Erin Lippitz, Executive Director of Champaign Center Partnership and Jeff Brandt, owner of Exile on Main St. in Brandt's store on Wednesday, November 19, 2014.

Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Erin Lippitz, Executive Director of Champaign Center Partnership and Jeff Brandt, owner of Exile on Main St. in Brandt's store on Wednesday, November 19, 2014.

By Sarah Soenke/For CU-CitizenAccess.org — As the number of small business retail establishments has decreased in the city of Champaign, downtown business owners and residents are looking to revitalize local shopping options, according to the Champaign Center Partnership.

“One of things that come up is we would like to have more retail in downtown,” said Erin Lippitz, executive director of the partnership. “We’re very food- and entertainment-heavy at this point, which is not a bad thing. That’s awesome. But we would like to be known a little bit more than just a place to go eat and drink.”

As a nonprofit organization, the partnership formed in 2010 as a result of a merger between the Champaign Downtown Association and the Campustown Business Group. It now oversees three districts: Downtown, Campustown and Midtown, according to its website.

In addition to connecting local businesses to advertising venues and other businesses through community events, th partnership also serves as a voice for local business owners. Its quarterly district and year-round, all-district meetings act as a platform for Partnership members and non-members to voice concerns about the community and specific business problems they might be facing.

The current discussion has been focused on downtown’s lack of retail establishments, Lippitz said.

From 2008 to 2012, the number of small retail businesses dropped from 252 to 223, or an 11.5 percent decrease, in the city of Champaign, according to the United States Census Bureau. At the same time,  there was  an overall 3.03 percent decrease in small businesses in Champaign. However, the number of food and accommodation businesses stayed relatively the same.

As of 2014, the partnership reported the downtown district, stretching north from Springfield Avenue to Vine Street and east from State Street to the railroad tracks, holds 26 shopping establishments and 34 restaurants and pubs.

“I’m shocked to say at this point that there really isn’t more retail than when (Exile on Main Street) opened ten years ago,” Jeff Brandt, owner of the vinyl and video game store, said.

Based on his experience as a downtown retail business owner and growing up in Champaign, he believes many people interested in opening a retail business hold misconceptions about the downtown environment, including a lack of parking and that the nightlife-heavy area not attracting visitors interested in shopping.

However, Brandt believes the city could be doing more to attract more of these businesses.

“I wish the city would do more things and give breaks or tax credits or whatever to bring more retail down here,” he said. “They should be trying on a smaller scale individually, I think, to help entrepreneurs to do things like this because retail is what’s missing down here.”

In addition, while there are construction projects creating new space for businesses, Brandt wishes the city would do more to renovate current abandoned buildings in the downtown area to decrease rent and renovation costs for small businesses.

A new steering committee the City of Champaign has been pulling together since late summer will help address these problems. Led by Bruce Knight, planning and development director for the city, the committee aims to “create programs that can help (the city) with growing small businesses citywide,” T.J. Blakeman, implementation planner for the city, said.

The committee is a result of Champaign City Council budgeting money for two economic development pilot projects for the fiscal year 2014-2015, Knight said. These include a virtual small business incubator project and a small business assistance program. Knight and the committee plan to research best practices to develop these programs.

“I’m hoping to be able to bring a proposal to a City Council study session in late January or early February,” Knight said.

So far, 15 to 20 people across the city have been invited to serve on the committee, ranging from business lenders and owners to members of Research Park, Blakeman said. Lippitz said she is one of the invited community members.

Through the work of the committee, Lippitz hopes to address the lack of retail establishments in downtown specifically and create growth initiatives for those businesses that the Partnership can then also aid.

While restaurant and bar business owners and others may be concerned about this type of specialized assistance, Brandt firmly believes retail business growth will only benefit the local community.

“I think it would make the bar foot traffic increase, it would make the restaurant foot traffic increase — everybody would benefit by there being more and more diverse retail down here,” he said.

Lippitz also agrees that the entire downtown community would benefit from small business retail growth, as well as the greater Champaign area in general.

“Downtown is kind of the heart of the city, and having a healthy and vibrant downtown makes the community healthy on a whole,” she said. “These small businesses are just crucial to maintaining that feel of downtown. … You get the best of both worlds that way.”