Since its inception in 2013, The Village of Skokie Economic Development Commission has been a critical resource for elected officials, Village staff, Skokie businesses, the region and state as a whole. On August 7, 2017, Commission Chairman Shalom Klein and Economic Development Manager Len Becker presented the 2017-2020 Village of Skokie Economic Strategy and Framework to the Village of Skokie Board of Trustees and the general public.
The presentation was the culmination of a more than two-year process as Commission members, staff, and community members have given hundreds of hours of time and significant effort to create the document. The tenets of the strategy and framework are based on a number of best practices from a broad base of communities throughout the region and U.S., as well as specific practices recommended and relevant for Skokie. The Economic Development Strategy and Framework is meant to be the foundation and focus towards the future for the Village to maximize opportunities to their highest and most beneficial potential. In addition, this document is inclusive and appreciates and embraces the community as a whole while recognizing the human, financial, institutional and social impacts of the Village’s overall economic vitality.
Unlike the beginning of some years in Skokie, 2017 strikes Mayor George Van Dusen as “deceptively quiet,” he said.
“The first couple years of the last term we had some tumult,” Van Dusen recalled.
In this election year, the Caucus Party incumbents — including the mayor, all trustees and the village clerk — are running unopposed in April.
Van Dusen, 73, was first appointed to the Skokie Village Board in 1999 after serving as trustee and seeks his fourth elected term in April.
Looking back at the start of his current administration, Van Dusen points to the controversy regarding beekeeping regulations in Skokie and the 10 days the village had to adopt an assault weapons ban among other issues.
“For the most part, we’ve just gone about our business,” he said. “Most of the challenges have been created by what isn’t going on in Springfield.”
But that doesn’t mean the village hasn’t been active — especially when it comes to economic development, according to the mayor. The end of the recession, he said, has “unleashed” some successful development activity.
“There’s been tremendous economic development the last couple years,” said Van Dusen. “In each of the last three years, we’ve exceeded 5,000 building permits. That’s a record.”
Several new commercial developments are expected to open this year starting with Skokie’s first Culver’s restaurant next week in the 9400 block of Skokie Boulevard. In the last quarter of the year, Van Dusen said, a new Target store could be ready to open at the southwest corner of Dempster Street and Bronx Avenue in the village’s West Dempster Street Corridor.
The store is expected to occupy 33,000 square-feet on property the village purchased that was once home to a dilapidated shopping center, according to village data on the development project. Nearby is another village-owned property slated for an auto parts store.
“We were patient with these properties and that paid off,” the mayor said.
Van Dusen said he is hoping patience also pays off for the former restaurant site at Oakton Street and Lincoln Avenue in downtown, which the village also owns. He had predicted 2016 would be the year in which development plans would be announced there, but that didn’t happen..
“We came close,” he said, adding that plans for a promising mixed-use development ultimately fell through. The mayor said there continues to be interest in the site.
A new three-retailer center is being built in the 9300 block of Skokie Boulevard, Van Dusen said. The site had been home to one hotel or another for more than 50 years.
The village’s two shopping centers and surrounding areas have also been active, according to the mayor. Westfield Old Orchard on the north is scheduled to open revamped luxury movie theaters in the fall, he said. Two small shopping areas have recently opened near Village Crossing along Touhy Avenue on the south. A popular bar-be-que restaurant is scheduled for a 2017 opening there in the 5200 block of Touhy, he said.
Development challenges still remain, Van Dusen admitted, including filling vacancies along a stretch of Skokie Boulevard near downtown.
Negotiations over the sale of the Illinois Science + Technology Park in downtown Skokie continue, he said. The park now has more than 1,500 employees, according to the mayor. Owner Forest City Enterprises announced more than a year ago it was selling the biotech park, which sits on 28 acres of property that once housed a pharmaceutical company. The open campus has a handful of buildings occupied by various science and medical companies.
Forest City officials originally said they expected the park to fill more quickly with more buildings being constructed based on demand, but the recession slowed down that demand, they said. A sixth building on the site was slated for construction with the help of a state grant that never came through because of the fiscal crisis in Springfield, Van Dusen said.
The mayor said he believes there are companies that would occupy that building, but only a shell sits on the site because of insufficient funds to complete it, Van Dusen said. He said he is hopeful the completion of the building could be part of a new buyer’s plans.
The village now wholly owns The North Shore Center For the Performing Arts, which will likely see upgrades in the future, he said.
Skokie is in the 26th year of a property tax freeze for the village portion of taxes, and that pattern is likely to continue, Van Dusen said. The village’s solid commercial base has allowed for the annual freeze, while other taxing bodies need property tax revenue, he said.
“The other units — the schools, the park district, the library — are not excessive in their property tax levies,” he said. “What we need is school finance reform.”
A couple years ago, an independent study of Skokie police operations inspired a plan to increase patrol officers and overall staffing of the Skokie Police Department.
Since then, new officers were hired and Skokie introduced a new mobile police station. The idea, Van Dusen said, was to bring more police presence into neighborhoods.
These actions came after some residents raised concerns following some high-profile crimes. However, statistics have shown that Skokie crime is not on the rise, Van Dusen said.
Although the mayor has not yet seen crime numbers for 2016, he said, he expects rates of incidents to remain relatively unchanged.
In recent years, Skokie has undergone a lot of transition at the top — changes in its village manager and assistant village manager, some trustees and other positions. Van Dusen said 2017, however, begins with Skokie having reached “a nice stable area” after “seamless” changes.
“I think in this next year, we’re going to see a lot of planning,” he said. “I want to take a look at East Dempster Street and Skokie Boulevard and East Oakton Street. There are some things we’ll look at to try to help those areas.”
Accepting the recommendation of Skokie’s Economic Development Commission, the board approved allowing business owners to change electronic sign messages every 20 seconds rather than 24 hours as stipulated under the current code.
“Currently, Skokie businesses do not regularly take advantage of electronic sign technology,” said Economic Development Commission Chairman Shalom Klein.
The Economic Development Commission held a public hearing a year ago and studied the issue for even longer, working alongside village staff. The commission unanimously agreed to recommend significant changes.
“We believe this proactive change will allow the business community to take advantage of technology that’s increasingly becoming more affordable or help attract commerce in this fantastic village,” Klein said.
Economic Development Commission Chairman Shalom Klein said his group, formed last year by Mayor George Van Dusen, endorses “the overall intent and findings of the plan, and encourages a process that will lead to a comprehensive plan amendment in support of more transit-oriented development for this area.”
At least a year in the making, the report was created by OKW Architects, and first introduced in 2012 to West Dempster Street stakeholders, including residents, business owners and developers.
“This study reinforces and expands the village’s efforts by recommending the use of excess parking capacity in station area commuter lots to support existing and future development, as well as circulation improvements for automobiles and pedestrians between the commuter lots and the retail development areas,” the report concludes.
Once the Economic Development Commission was formed, it was immediately asked to review the plan as its first big project.
“The comments came in overwhelmingly supportive of the plan,” Klein said at a presentation Monday to the Skokie Village Board. “Overwhelming support for the plan (was based on) that mixed use is the right way to go.”
Klein said the parcel in the heart of the zone under study could be a great area for diverse retail uses.