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Downtown businesses renovating despite economy

DeKALB – Construction activity on downtown streets is hard to ignore, but what’s less apparent is the construction activity brewing behind doors of several overlooking businesses.

In one square block alone, at least two businesses are expanding, two others are launching and three are adding outdoor patios.

For Lauren Woods, the decision to expand “was serendipity,” the small-business owner said. A combination of things came together to create the perfect opportunity to expand Cracker Jax, an eclectic gift store located in the middle of a block-long road construction project on North Third Street.

“We thought, while they’re doing the road construction, we’ll do our own construction,” Woods said.

The opportunity to add 1,000 square feet to the store came when former next-door tenant, the Christian Science Reading Room, moved a few blocks away.

Also expanding is My Faivret Things, which will now include the entire lower level of the building on East Lincoln Highway, wedged between heavy amounts of construction taking place this spring and summer on Second and Third streets.

Several vacant buildings are about to see new life. The Witmers, who own several downtown restaurants, are revamping the former Filo Spinato’s from Italian cuisine to a family sports bar. Called Upper Deck, it will have an outdoor deck over Palmer Court when it opens later this year.

Also adding outdoor dining are O’Leary’s Irish Pub & Grill, The Hillside Restaurant and Eduardo’s Mexican Restaurant.

And a cosmetology school will soon open in the old DeKalb Theater building on Third Street, across from Cracker Jax.

Tom Rogers and his three daughters are co-owners of Debutantes Cosmetology School, named in memory of Rogers’ wife, Deb, who died of cancer in 2006.

The family “couldn’t be more ecstatic” about their decision to start a new enterprise amid a national recession and a multiyear downtown streetscape project, said Rogers, of St. Charles.

“Although we could not have predicted the changes that have happened economically in the last year, as it turns out, most of those play into the reasons that we are doing this,” he said.

By that, he means the business model Debutantes will use. When it opens later this summer, Debutantes will offer a quicker, cheaper way than a traditional four-year program, Rogers said. Students will get the technical skills needed and a large emphasis will be placed on the professional and entrepreneurial skills one would need to start their own salon.

Rogers is not only confident that the current business climate desperately needs innovation, he’s sure the local investment will pay off – and DeKalb is lacking in luster compared to other college towns, he said.

“You have this revitalization project going on,” Rogers said. “You can sense its energy. You can sense the impact this can have in truly transforming DeKalb.”

He acknowledged, however, that established businesses have faced negative impacts along the way. The obstructions, the noise and a loss of customers have been valid concerns voiced by neighboring tenants since the streetscape work began last year with the transformation of a city parking lot.

Despite that, Woods, who will be celebrating her 25th year of operating Cracker Jax next year, said that business has been better than expected. And she’s sensing it can only get better.

“When all of this comes together, things are really going to start turning around,” she said.

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