55 vacant Chicago storefronts to come alive in time for the holidays

Local organizations and chambers of commerce will share $2 million to help retailers and artists set up shops around the city.

SHARE 55 vacant Chicago storefronts to come alive in time for the holidays
Chicago Department of Business Affairs and  Consumer Protection Commissioner Ken Meyer speaks at a press conference about the first day of businesses being open with no mask mandate. Monday February 28, 2022.

Ken Meyer, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection

Brian Rich/Sun-Times file

Fifty-five Chicago storefronts will come to life over the holidays and cold winter months providing showcase space for entrepreneurs and artists, thanks to a $2 million program aimed at generating sorely needed foot traffic.

With retailers who managed to survive the pandemic still struggling to attract inflation-weary consumers, Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched the so-called “Small Business Storefront Activation Program.”

Outlined in the Chicago Recovery Plan and bankrolled by federal stimulus money, grants to 17 local community organizations and chambers of commerce will give Chicagoans an opportunity to “shop at 25 pop-up spaces featuring 140 different vendors.” More than 50 artists will showcase their works at 30 previously vacant storefronts.

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Ken Meyer said the goal is to allow entrepreneurs to “explore the market of a physical retail space, test their concepts and interact with customers” in hopes they will generate enough sales to someday rent permanent space.

The art installations will likewise “highlight the vacant storefronts as potential retail opportunities,” the commissioner said.

Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance, said his group has used roughly $200,000 of its $312,000 grant to create a State Street Holiday Market, which will open Friday at the former DSW store at 35 S. State.

“The first level will have some holiday programming. Art and performance and that kind of thing. And then, you go down the escalator and there’ll be at least 50 vendors there. ... Businesses that wouldn’t typically be able to be on State Street during the holidays just because of the way the economics work,” Edwards said.

“Through Sundays on State, we’ve identified some very viable businesses. Small breweries. Folks manufacturing jewelry or perfumes. Those kinds of businesses are viable businesses to go into a real space paying real rent in the future.”

The remaining $100,000 of the grant will be used for a storefront activation program that Edwards calls, “La Salle-Aglow.” Five buildings and roughly 20 storefronts along La Salle Street will be activated with art “designed to glow into the evening all the way through March,” he said.

“La Salle Street is just a dark street. We need to show the potential. We think the glowing art will be very helpful in getting people to think about La Salle Street a little differently. This is an idea to kind of activate through art and kind of get people to realize that La Salle Street’s a pretty interesting street and really take advantage of Chicago dark time,” he said.

“Our mission this year and frankly next year is to accelerate the economic recovery of the Loop beyond the pandemic and beyond any crime issues downtown. We do that by giving people a reason to come downtown.”

Rebecca Girsch, executive director of the Lakeview Roscoe Village Chamber of Commerce, said her group has asked five female artists to showcase their works in eight to 10 vacant storefronts on Belmont Avenue between Western and Ravenswood avenues “through the quiet months” of 2023.

“We’re doing a market push behind it. ... It’s meant to bring attention to some vacant storefronts. Hopefully, get some eyes on, potentially renting out the spaces and/or bring people to see what other businesses are in the area and spend some time and some money in the neighborhood. We definitely want to see an uptick in foot traffic,” Girsch said.

“It’s challenging still. The world is dealing with inflation so costs are going up for our businesses. People are tightening their belts to kind of compensate for that. The competition for retail and restaurants is as fierce as it ever has been. People are hanging in there. This is the time when things start to pick up. So any activation—any new creativity and beautification—should be a benefit to the businesses. That’s what we’re looking at this grant to get folks out there.”

In addition to the Loop Alliance and Lakeview Roscoe Village Chamber, grants will go to 18th Street Development Corp. and the Austin, East Edgewater, Greater Englewood, Lincoln Park, South Shore and Southeast Chicago chambers of commerce.

Other recipients include the Far South, Greater Southwest and Northwest Side development corporations, Magnificent Mile Association, North River Commission, Greater Chatham Initiative and Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

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