Libertyville nonprofit helps town thrive
Saturday afternoon in downtown Libertyville is a busy time, as people shop and dine. Libby Cathlina of Green Oaks and her daughter, Celia, 5, walk along Route 21 looking at the store windows painted for homecoming. | Rob Dicker~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 19, 2012 1:32AM
LIBERTYVILLE — On any given day, the shops and restaurants in the village’s historic downtown are steady with customers.
Despite the economic turmoil in the last few years, the downtown area has only a 10 percent vacancy rate, Executive Director for MainStreet Libertyville Pam Hume said.
And that’s not by accident. Since forming in 1989 under a tax increment financing district, the nonprofit, volunteer-run MainStreet Libertyville organization has worked tirelessly to keep retail space filled and the downtown buildings restored.
“The mission of MainStreet is economic development and retention through historic preservation,” said Hume. “We’ve had stores come in and out, certainly. But we’ve also had many stores expand.”
With grant money to restore the facades of the turn-of-the-century storefronts and install new landscaping and sidewalks, the group helped turn the downtown into a destination spot for locals and out-of-towners, she said. Before MainStreet Libertyville was formed, the downtown had a 30 percent vacancy rate, she said.
A main goal of the organization is to figure out ways to attract businesses and customers to the downtown, she said. One way is by having shop owners stay open until 9 p.m. on the first Friday of every month from March through December. Another is to host special events — about 50 a year — to attract people to the area. The Out to Lunch in Cook Park event, held on Fridays in the summer, the Farmers Market on Thursday mornings, and Let’s Wine About Winter — an event during which customers walk from store to store sampling wine while shopping — are just some events that draw customers, Hume said.
“It drives community activity to the downtown,” she said.
The organization also recently hosted an open house for commercial brokers to view space for rent downtown, Hume said. With two new restaurants opening — the Green Room and Shakou — the downtown continues to be a destination spot for dining out, she said.
“Then people come out of the restaurants and walk around downtown and shop,” she said. “It’s the comfortable walkability. It’s the mom-and-pop stores rather than the chains. It’s a walk, shop, entertain, living concept.”
Among the downtown businesses are salons, bakeries, candy shops, flower shops, specialty shops and dozens of other stores and commercial services.
At How Impressive!, after six years running her business downtown, owner Kristine Knutson said it’s all about being part of the community.
Offering personalized stationery and custom jewelry and spirit wear and items to appeal to locals, Knuston said keeping the downtown area thriving is about working together.
“We’re more of a destination shop,” Knutson said as local high school students painted her shop window for homecoming. “I love to give people information about the town — where to go to lunch. I’m always recommending restaurants and other stores to go to. We all shop in each others’ stores.”
Giving back to the town is a big part of running a business, she said.
“I have never said no to a donation,” said Knutson, who also offers her shop as a location for local groups, like the Libertyville Junior Women’s Club, to hold meetings.
She then donates money to that group’s favorite charity, like the Lake County Haven, where Knutson is a member of the auxiliary.
“It’s about being part of the community,” she said.
That kind of dedication to the community is found in every store and businesses downtown, Hume said.
“We pride ourselves on service with a personal touch,” said Hume, adding that when a customer goes into a downtown shop, “more often than not they’re probably talking to the owner.”
The town’s mayor, Terry Weppler, said MainStreet Libertyville has helped keep the downtown area thriving.
“It’s just a social setting for the entire community,” Weppler said.
The village’s economic development coordinator works with MainStreet Libertyville to help keep retail space filled, he said.
“Even in this economy, stores don’t stay vacant very long,” Weppler said.
The downtown is a destination spot for locals and out-of-towners, he said. The Why Wine About Winter event, he said, draws buses of people from other park districts.
“It draws people from all over the county,” Weppler said.