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MetroEdge Reports Back to Humboldt Park

The health of any community depends in part on successful local retail businesses that provide jobs, services, tax revenue and healthy street activity. Why, then, aren’t more of them in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where residents wield an overall buying power of $175 million per square mile (twice the county average and 26th out of Chicago’s 77 community areas) yet spend more of their money outside the community than its retailers draw into it?

To answer that question, neighborhood advocates, under the direction of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., the lead agency for LISC’s New Communities Program, enlisted LISC/Metro/Edge to study neighborhood conditions and buying trends.

The heart of the Puerto Rican-oriented business district is the Paseo Boricua on Division Street, bookended by flags at the intersections of Western and California avenues.

MetroEdge calculates the “retail float” in each community, or the dollars spent inside versus outside the local market area for all retail categories combined, as well as for specific qualities, such as hardware or grocery stores. Earlier this summer, MetroEdge presented its final report on retail findings to about 50 community stakeholders at the Bickerdike offices.

Here’s the good news.

“A great diversity of retail wants to come here,” said Jake Cowan, the Metro/Edge business manager who presented the meat of the findings. “There are significant gaps between residents’ demand for retail and places in the neighborhood to capture that demand. The building blocks to capture this opportunity are already in place – existing local businesses demonstrate the strength of this market on a daily basis. There are so many people invested in the success of this neighborhood. You have the opportunity for relatively quick movement and progress.”

Roeser's bakery is a decades-old fixture on the North Avenue retail strip.

The report points out community assets, including access to public transit, highways and major “arterial” streets like Western and Pulaski; the strong leadership of Bickerdike and its main partners; a healthy complement of employment centers right in the neighborhood; and the beauty of and activity level within Humboldt Park itself. “There is a lot of activity. That creates a real community anchor,” Cowan said.

And the bad news?

“There are dollars leaving the [Humboldt Park] community in every individual retail category,” such as restaurants or home-and-garden, said Cowan. “This represents a conservative case in many ways.” And that remains true even when adjusting the “float” to account for competition from stores up to 2 1/2 miles outside the immediate trade area, which “is also underserved. You have an opportunity to serve your residents and capture other dollars.”

So what’s holding the retail market back? “Retailers don’t like to be the first investor in a market,” Cowan said, “and the strength of investment trends in Humboldt Park is not readily apparent from off-the-shelf market data typically used by retailers.”

By some measures (the number of building permits issued, for example) the investment climate in Humboldt Park is healthy. On the other hand, foreclosure filing rates are higher than the city average. In addition, retailers are also concerned with crime, with the rates in Humboldt Park being similar to the city at large.  The MetroEdge report suggests continuing programs to improve security, ramping up beautification efforts, launching “early action projects” to target particular sites and build momentum, and promoting Humboldt Park and its sub-markets.

The Chicago-Kedzie mall anchors the business district along Chicago Avenue in west Humboldt Park.

The report provides a wealth of demographic data derived from the national market research provider Claritas, which is “familiar to retailers” but which MetroEdge spends time customizing for specific markets, looking at it through the non-traditional lenses of income diversity and population density he said. The median income of only $33,000 is 60 percent of the Cook County average, but it’s risen 70 percent since 1990. About one-third of the population has an income between $35,000 and $75,000, and half is above $35,000. These income ranges represent a key household type that retailers target.

“You can support a diversity of retail stores with a diversity of incomes,” Cowan said. The community’s concentration of middle-income families per square mile is high, he added, and it’s also increasing at a higher rate than the county as a whole.

The retail scan was designed to understand the development opportunities in greater Humboldt Park and several sub-markets within the area spanning from Cicero to Western avenues, and from Bloomingdale to Kinzie avenues. It includes “Saturday morning” shopping needs such as pharmacies, groceries, dry cleaners, auto parts or hardware stores. Customers typically prefer to find these goods and services within walking or short driving distance of their homes.

Humboldt Park boasts a number of community assets, perhaps none as priceless as the shimmering beauty of the namesake park and its lagoon.

Eric Young Smith

The four key themes of the study were the breadth of community “pillars” (political leaders and institutions) with which investors and retailers can work, the strength of retail demand both in terms of income diversity and overall spending power, the locations of key nodes with pre-existing continuous business development on which to build, and a diversity of development opportunities that provides “plenty of choices,” Cowan said.

“There are some very interesting and thought-provoking findings,” said LISC Program Director Joel Bookman, which are designed to spur “questions, dialogue, and then the next-step: implementing the findings based on the data. This can’t be a study that sits on a shelf. It’s got to be used to create some real improvement here in your neighborhood.”

Reactions to the Rollout
Those attending the rollout had a variety of comments and questions. Enrique Salgado, executive director of the Division Street Business Development Association, said he’s been “working on certain key sites along Division, trying to market to retailers and restaurants, and add to the ‘destination’ aspect of the Paseo Boricua,” a Puerto Rican-themed stretch from Western to California.

When Salgado presented some of MetroEdge’s data to potential investors, “Their eyes opened wide,” he said. “Now, I don’t have to call them as much. … A lot of it is being intentional. A lot of what this shows is how we have not been intentional. We need to identify target areas and types of businesses.”

Mayra Hernandez, who directs the NCP program at Bickerdike, said her program would be focusing on Chicago Avenue, which has plenty of vacant space, and North Avenue, which is better populated but where existing owners need help with investments like expansion or façade improvements.

NCP outreach worker Keith Muhammad said Chicago Avenue efforts were aimed to help existing small businesses stay and new entrepreneurs thrive. Jimmy Simmons, board president of the West Humboldt Park Family and Community Development Council, said Chicago Avenue needs help from economic development specialists to ensure that entrepreneurs do thrive, noting that such programs have been tried in the past.

Another attendee asked whether plans might be in the works to attracting existing businesses in other neighborhoods that might want to open second or third locations. Cowan called that “a fabulous idea,” but Miguel Palacio, executive director of Association House, sounded a cautionary note. “I start to cringe,” he said. “What’s the culture that’s going to be brought in with that?”

MetroEdge senior consultant Helen Dunlap said the study was intended to be a profile that would both build on what the community already knew and add new information to be used intentionally and with the right audiences.

“You can mix and match the slides when you go out to present,” she said. “Building credibility, to some extent, has to do with presenting the right information. The challenges are definitely different on North, Division and Chicago. I’m excited by the push-and-pull in the room.”

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