Sprucing up a ragged downtown to help fashion a comeback

Every Saturday, weather permitting, Jerry Fell wheels out his carnival popcorn popper. It sits in front of his shoe store in downtown Highland Park, attracting customers. Passers-by are given free bags of the freshly popped fluffy stuff.

It is a small gesture - but a telling one in the shopping district of this northern Chicago suburb. It is one of many signs that this city's downtown is on the way up.

Like many communities across the United States, Highland Park's downtown was losing business to a nearby shopping mall. Four years ago about 20 storefronts were vacant.

''Everybody was panicky,'' recalls the mayor.

Now, all that has changed. Only two downtown stores are vacant. Roughly a third have done some kind of building or remodeling. And city officials, pointing proudly to an office-shopping complex being built, say that the city's experience can be repeated elsewhere.

''Other communities can do what we've done,'' says Mayor Robert M. Buhai. Many communities are beginning to sit up and take notice.

It can't be said that Highland Park is your typical community.

Rolls-Royces glide by large mansions. The town of 30,000 residents boasts six golf courses - a fact even Mayor Buhai is a little embarrassed to admit. US Census figures show the community in the top 2 percent nationally in terms of average per capita income.

But there may be lessons here for other communities concerned about their downtowns, observers say.

Problems began when the Northbrook Court mall opened in 1975. In 1979, a major downtown department store closed its doors.

''Things were not looking too good,'' city manager Larry Rice recalls.

To counter the erosion, the suburb decided to borrow a big-city idea - the multi-use project. Such projects, which combine store space with offices or apartments, are relatively rare in the suburbs, says Stuart Rogel, research associate with the Urban Land Institute in Washington. But they are gaining acceptance.

Last year in Highland Park, a team of local developers broke ground for Port Clinton, a $15.1 million project combining office with retail space. The city was a full partner in the project. It bought the land, leased it back to the developer for 99 years, and ploughed $5 million into a plaza and underground garage.

Community approval was not exactly forthcoming, however.

''We all took a lot of abuse,'' recalls Bob Ballou, the city's director of urban design. ''There were many days that you put your head in your hands and said: 'I'm not sure I can continue to do this.' ''

Some residents, such as local restaurateur Robert Grinker, became concerned the city was too heavily involved in Port Clinton. Highland Park is paying for its part through tax-increment financing, which means the downtown redevelopment will have to be successful for the city to recoup its initial outlays. (A lot of the money is expected to come from Port Clinton. So far, about 60 percent of its space is spoken for, which is usually considered good for projects of this sort).

Most of the opposition centered not on Port Clinton, but on downtown street renovations.

The city, due to tear up downtown streets to replace water and sewer mains, had also decided to upgrade a three-block area downtown to the tune of $2.4 million. In went trees, planters, pedestrian amenities, and handcrafted circular benches at $4,000 apiece - and out came public indignation at the cost.

A $500,000 arch over the railroad tracks, intended as a symbolic bridge between the two sides of town, became the focal point of vocal dissent.

Nevertheless, the majority of the City Council stuck to its plan. In this spring's local elections, at least one council seat was lost because of the renovation, observers say. But the challenger to Mayor Buhai, who campaigned against the renovations, lost by a significant margin.

Some merchants and residents, initially opposed to the changes, have become very supportive. Other merchants report an increase in business already and expect to see much more when Port Clinton opens, probably in June. Still others, such as Jackie Goldsmith, manager of the Chestnut Court Book Shop Inc., are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

For their part, Mayor Buhai and other officials defend the city's spending on downtown redevelopment.

''You've got to do it first-class,'' Buhai says. And ''you have got to have a City Council that can take the heat, because people resist change, no matter what the reasons.''

In fact, observers say, the most important ingredient for downtown rejuvenation may not lie in sales revenues or pretty benches, but in a positive change of attitude.

''We're trying to make downtown a more fun place to be,'' says Jerry Fell, who, incidentally, still hasn't put away his popcorn popper for the winter.

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