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Gauging DeKalb's commercial appeal

A vacant store at 237 E. Lincoln Highway reflects in downtown DeKalb on Monday.
A vacant store at 237 E. Lincoln Highway reflects in downtown DeKalb on Monday.

DeKALB – Commercial real estate agent Ralph Crafton figures the former Al’s Furniture shop would make a great attorney’s office or retail store – something that doesn’t require a lot of parking.

The 2,400-square-foot space at 255 E. Lincoln Highway has been vacant for almost a year and a half, Crafton said. A bridal shop had considered leasing the space, which is next to the Golden Thai Jasmine restaurant, but the deal fell through.

“It’s pretty much a vanilla shell,” Crafton said. “It’s just a clear space. It’s ready for someone to do a build out, put partitions in it.”

By real estate broker Mike Carpenter’s estimation, the space is one of 20 available in downtown DeKalb, including second-floor office spaces. Although city officials and Re:New DeKalb leaders are updating the downtown development plan, some local real estate brokers say there is little city officials can do to fill those spaces quicker.

“It’s not DeKalb as a whole that’s really suffering. Central business districts have, as a whole, high vacancy rates,” said Carpenter, of RVG Commercial. “We’ve moved away from central business centers from grocery anchors and retail centers. ... It’s tough to get good anchors in the central business district.”

Carpenter said businesses that work well in downtown DeKalb are variations of the ones that are already there – professional service businesses, boutique retail stores, ethnic restaurants and nightlife venues.

“That seems to be working pretty well,” Carpenter said. “But we have vacancies on Route 23. The economy is still soft. It’s tougher for smaller businesses to make ends meet.”

He encouraged city leaders to find economic incentives, besides the existing tax increment financing district, to bring businesses downtown without relying on state support.

“The bottom line is, you have to have jobs,” Carpenter said. “You need businesses that can make a profit. If they can employ people downtown, that will give people a reason to go downtown. You create traffic in the downtown area, people will spend money.”

Paul Miller, owner of Adolph Miller Real Estate, figures small-business owners and would-be entrepreneurs need better access to loans that would support ventures downtown.

Downtown storefronts tend to be more affordable than spaces near Northern Illinois University or in Sycamore, so an economic upturn likely would help those who would be interested in downtown DeKalb.

Landlords are motivated to fill the empty spaces, Miller said.

“Landlords would rather have something than nothing,” said Miller, who took over the business after his father died. “I know that’s how my dad was. Nothing doesn’t pay the bills.”

Crafton, though, encouraged more downtown parking, perhaps through a small parking garage, and more apartments to push people into the area.

“A lot of it comes down to parking and population,” Crafton said. “If we get more people living downtown that would feed off these stores, that would be a good thing.”

Meanwhile, DeKalb leaders continually work to fill spaces downtown and around the city. The city has strong relationships with the small business development centers at Kishwaukee College, Waubonsee Community College and Elgin Community College, said Roger Hopkins, the city’s economic development consultant.

“If somebody wants to start-up a business or expand their business, we can have those small business development centers work with them,” Hopkins said.

However, some of the empty storefronts downtown have unique challenges. For example, the former Frontier Communications location at 225 E. Locust St. is old enough that it likely would need extensive renovation. At 14,000 square feet, it’s a lot of space for one merchant to handle, Hopkins said.

“Those are just a matter of finding a merchant who is interested in them,” Hopkins said. “We had a couple of prospects in those businesses who were interested, but it didn’t pan out.”

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