Western Courier

The square fights to stay afloat

By Bill Welt

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Macomb’s Downtown’s economy seems to be pretty Square.

Pepperoni’s Pizza and Ford Hopkins Drug Store closed. Owners Don Mueller and Ketra Kuniej left The Old Dairy. Gumbart’s remains for sale, while the Pagliai’s Pizza’s lot remains empty.

However, Mayor Mike Inman and Dan Livermore of the Macomb Chamber of Commerce said the square is not fading like downtown centers in other rural communities.

Livermore said the recession has had an effect on Macomb’s small businesses, but added some of the closings were not due to the struggling economy.

“There are reasons why each one of those particular businesses closed,” he said. “There are just a lot of things you can’t predict because of the fact some of them are very personal.”

Inman said Old Dairy’s transition to new ownership is an example of a personal business decision involving no economic factors.

“This was purely a personal decision based on no economic factors and I don’t have any control of that; that’s their (Mueller and Kuniej) decision and we respect that,” Inman said. “I was encouraged by the fact that that was their decision. It wasn’t a situation where they didn’t feel like they weren’t getting the support from the community, either.”

Inman, however, said Pepperoni’s Pizza and Pagliai’s Pizza were victims of the recession.

He also admitted Rick Crossett’s decision to close Ford Hopkins, which opened in 1930, was an emotional loss for the community, but said the circle of business life, perhaps, requires old businesses to leave for new ones to come in. Inman connected Crossett’s closing to Jack Stites Pharmacy’s dissolution.

“They (Jack Stites Pharmacy) decided to transition their business much like Mr. Crossett did his,” Inman said. “They closed their business and we now have something called Chicks on the Square. What was a negative has ultimately been turned into a positive in most people’s minds.”

Despite some of the struggles the square has seen recently with the closings of Ford Hopkins, Pepperoni’s Pizza and Pagliai’s Pizza, Inman believes Macomb is doing better economically than other surrounding communities.

“We’re encouraged that our local business environment here is not so sensitive to national trends, good or bad,” he said. “We’re kind of stable here. Not to say that we haven’t felt the negative impact of the economic downturn here, we sure have, but it’s not been on the scale as some other communities you hear about.”

Fifth Ward Alderman Dave Dorsett, owner of the The Wine Sellers, said the economic slowdown has prompted residents to travel less and buy cheaper products, which has softened the blow of the recession for his business.

“Retailers such as ourselves have probably seen less decrease than many since our product is not a high dollar one,” Dorsett said of his local liquor store. “Certainly it is less expensive for folks to purchase a mid-priced bottle of wine and entertain at home than go out. In that way, the slowdown can actually work in our favor.”

Dorsett repudiated local critics at a city council meeting in June for playing the “guessing game” of what business will close next.

“There will always be a contingent of naysayers who can find a dark lining in any silver cloud. It’s just a certain type of human nature,” he said. “Fortunately, the majority of the Macomb community is supportive of the efforts of local business owners.”

He added it has not been all bad news on the square, either.

“We are seeing a number of openings as well. While a few long-time businesses are making changes, these are companies that have been going for decades,” Dorsett said. “Those are successes by small business metrics.”

Recent downtown openings include Simply Suzanne, In Its Time and The Bargain Box.

Meanwhile, Envy owner Kelly Rynkus said sales at her clothing store has grown 20 percent since 2008.

“I believe Envy opened at the beginning of the recession,” said Rynkus. “I have been told from other downtown business owners that if Envy is doing well in this recession, that we will really boom in a good economy.”

Rynkus, 27, added her store is introducing more products and services, including a new home décor section.

Inman said he was encouraged by Rynkus’ success, hoping to lure more young entrepreneurs into Macomb’s small business center.

“I have reached out to Kelly in Envy and told her specifically of our plans and said, ‘You’re the poster child for what the square needs,'” Inman said of Rynkus, who graduated from Western Illinois University in 2006. “We need this kind of young entrepreneurial leadership downtown; that’s going to be the key to making our downtown thrive. She really is an outstanding model.”

According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the desire to start a business has risen for young adults (ages 18-21) from 19 percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2010 despite the recession.

“The fastest growing sector of entrepreneurship in this country is folks that are 19-25 years old,” Inman said. “Good, bad or otherwise, they are college students that have come out of their college degree programs and guess what, they can’t find a job. So, they start a business. Why not go out encourage, solicit and otherwise help facilitate that growing entrepreneurship group in coming into our business community right here in Macomb where they are like-minded, with a very huge demographic that sometimes feels underserved?

“Why not marry those two concepts in a downtown location on several different levels? I think there’s a huge opportunity there, and what I’ve charged in our relationship with the chamber is let’s go out and actively recruit and look for those entrepreneurial-minded folks on campus,” he added.

Inman said he has encouraged businesses to stay open longer to increase the number of college student customers in the square as well.

“We have been almost on a cycle here for the last several decades of trying to encourage downtown businesses to extend their hours, knowing full well there was an untapped demographic that was not being met,” he said.

Both Inman and Livermore said Envy attracted more college students because it remains open until 7p.m. Wednesday through Friday, unlike many other businesses on the square.

“We would like to see more college students come to the downtown instead of just getting off the bus at Wal-Mart,” Livermore said.

Livermore added the chamber has done student surveys to try to better market the downtown area to a largely untapped demographic.

Inman and Livermore said other projects, such as the Façade Improvement Program, will help keep the local economy from declining.

Additionally, Livermore said it would be difficult for the downtown area to fade because of its heavy traffic and high visibility.

“I think Macomb’s downtown does a very good job keeping the storefronts occupied,” Livermore said. “Things do cycle out with the businesses that go out, but new businesses always come in. They (the empty lots) just don’t sit for very long.”

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The independent student newspaper of Western Illinois University. Serving Macomb since 1905.
The square fights to stay afloat