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Akst: Redeveloping spaces in the community

Published: Friday, April 26, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Last Saturday, my wife and I were at an outdoor wedding at Hopkins Park.

Hopkins is familiar territory. Our son has played there since toddlerhood. We know every inch of the playground equipment. We’ve chased squirrels, “performed” at the band shell and swum in the pool.

We’re fortunate to have a nice facility like Hopkins Park, and I’m glad to live somewhere that seems to value its important spaces and the need to develop our community sensibly.

Community and economic development have been the focus of meetings, discussions and City Hall action in the past couple of weeks. No plan is uniformly popular or cheap, which sparks controversy, but that’s OK. Controversy and debate show we care.

For example, despite negativity from some, the DeKalb City Council on Monday gave unanimous initial approval to nearly $1 million in tax increment financing proposals for redeveloping the former DeKalb Clinic in downtown DeKalb and the former Small’s Furniture City on Sycamore Road.

Bill and Joy McMahon, who own the Lincoln Inn Restaurant downtown, requested a TIF loan of $330,000, and $25,000 in an architectural improvement loan. They want to build a banquet hall where the DeKalb Clinic used to be.

John Pappas of Pappas Development asked for $628,000 (also a TIF loan) to redevelop the Small’s Furniture property at 2211 Sycamore Road into either a restaurant or a retail center. That’s where Olive Garden’s parent company got everybody excited about salad and breadsticks, had a weak fiscal quarter, and then gave us the heave-ho (not that I’m cynical).

Both propositions are risky. All development carries risk, and restaurants are seen as very risky.

But with restaurants, some of the publicized risk is hype.

In 2003, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito said (in a commercial for American Express) that 90 percent of restaurants fail in the first few years. Whoa.

But H.G. Parsa, then an associate professor at Ohio State University’s Hospitality Management program, doubted this number. The researcher with 13 years of restaurant experience asked American Express where the 90 percent statistic came from.

Eventually, AMEX told him it didn’t know.

Parsa’s research (and other studies) found that about one in four restaurants close or change ownership within the first year. Over three years, that number rises to three in five, or about 60 percent.

That’s still high, but on the other hand, the National Restaurant Association projects U.S. restaurant sales of $660.5 billion in 2013, up about 9 percent in two years. “On a typical day, restaurant industry sales are $1.8 billion across the 980,000 restaurant locations nationwide,” its website says. “Today, restaurant industry sales are 4% of the U.S. GDP.”

Whether either a banquet hall (not a restaurant, but similar) or a restaurant will make it is uncertain.

I’m not sure what else could be done with the former DeKalb Clinic. It’s not a unique structure or attractive location. Based on what I’ve seen in some communities around here, it seems like a banquet hall might work. Demolishing the structure and creating a beautiful community garden or some other unique greenspace might also work. Community is not solely about commerce.

Regarding the former Small’s site, let’s eliminate what we don’t need. We don’t need more banks, jewelry, cellphone or mattress stores. We don’t need more burgers. We don’t need more office space.

I hope we create a multipurpose, indoor, exciting, educational, fun complex for kids. Epic Air in South Elgin, Funway in Batavia or the DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville are all places to emulate.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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