The tale of an Elgin North Grove survey

The tale of an Elgin North Grove survey

Come on now, who do you, who do you, who do you, who do you think you are?
Ha ha ha, bless your soul, you really think you’re in control?
– Gnarls Barkley

The absurd notion that municipal inhabitants can pick and choose the businesses that come into their communities isn’t nearly relegated to Second City progressive politicians and minority residents. Suburban white folks are equally afflicted with the delusion that they can order up a specific retailer just like an entrée on a restaurant menu.

To be fair, elected officials and city administrators inadvertently foster this false narrative by soliciting public opinion on future development possibilities as Elgin just did in regard to the generally vacant 38-acre North Grove property primarily owned by the city.

It’s not that these surveys are inherently flawed, they’re helpful in the sense that they can provide a sense of what the market might bear. Once armed with the data, city staffers can reach out to the appropriate enterprises and use those numbers as the basis for an invitation to do business within their borders.

The problem is your average American is immune to any form of subtlety and the folks who fill those things out tend to believe the questionnaire’s mere existence is proof that city administrators can unilaterally determine which retailers will come and go.

While they certainly have some statutory power in that regard, it’s far more limited than you might think. If it wasn’t, there’d be no tattoo parlors, pool halls, or “gentlemen’s” clubs anywhere. Thankfully, the majority of city councilmen understand if their business prohibitions go too far, their city will be sued and they will lose.

But regular folks don’t get begin to understand that dynamic, which inevitably leads to disappointment and disenfranchisement after 80 percent of their developmental pipe dreams fail to come to fruition. Then those same city staffers have to bear the brunt of a rather vocal disappointment.

For proof of that postulate, please refer to the previous column on the Englewood community’s reaction to their impending Save-a-Lot grocery store. In the same vein, let’s take a look as some of the Elgin public’s not-so-reasonable thoughts on North Grove’s potential future as reported by the Courier-News.

Of those possibilities, the microbrewery suggestion was the most realistic, but it’s certainly not a sure thing. Microbreweries fare a bit better, but 60 percent of restaurants fail within the first year. Then you have to consider the existing competition, particularly in light of COVID’s lingering effects on the hospitality industry.

There’s the popular Elgin Public House, the Plank Road Taproom, and Lounge 51, all of whom serve craft beers. The Elgin area also plays host to at least six Microbreweries within a 20-minute drive. So, what’s going to set this new North Grove iteration apart from the others who’ve already built their customer base? And if the new one succeeds, might it put another one out of business? It’s not as if Elgin can prevent a microbrewery from coming into the city, but my theory is, if the area could support another one, it would already be there.

Considering my wife and I own kayaks, I also like the kayak rental establishment suggested by at least one Elginite, but that possibility is fraught with even more peril.

The first problem is the northern Illinois kayaking season lasts a scant three months, and even if the weather generally cooperates, the Fox River’s depth can fluctuate wildly, particularly as drought and flooding become the climate change norm.

That means, this enterprise will likely have to deal in other sporting goods which means they’re competing with the Walmart Supercenter, Target, Blaine’s Farm and Fleet, and all manner of smaller local stores. Kayak rental businesses thrive in places like Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Shabbona Lake State Park where they can count on day trippers and a far more consistent body of water.

I love Elgin, but it’s not the kind of travel destination that Galena and Geneva are. It may be someday, but I sincerely doubt that it could support a kayak rental business right now.

That brings us to the most common citizen recommendation which is…drumroll…a grocery store, which brings us full circle to our friends in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. But unlike it is with Englewood, no one can call Elgin a food desert. And if a grocery store does grace those North Grove corridors, it will have to compete with:

  • Walmart
  • Sam’s Club
  • Meijer
  • Target
  • Jewel
  • Butera
  • Aldi
  • Elgin Fresh Market
  • Supervalu, and
  • Supersaver

Which will be no small task.

To make those matters even more fascinating, Shared Harvest, an Elgin community owned food co-op, has encouraged residents to “vote” for a grocery store whether they want one or not because they’d like to open a North Grove location. While I certainly understand their intent, that kind of “coaching” tends to undermine the entire concept of a public survey.

Co-ops can be a difficult proposition because of the participatory nature of the beast. There’s a vast difference between belonging to a co-op and simply heading out to Meijer for groceries. I’ll say it again! If the market could bear a North Grove area grocery store, they’d already be begging to come in.

Case in point. Some years ago, a group of Genevans started a campaign to lure a Whole Foods or Mariano’s into the Tri-Cities. Heeding their efforts, that savvy corporate crowd took note of the existing grocers and boarded a helicopter to count rooftops. Then they plugged that data into their store survival computer formula, and when the math didn’t work out, it was the end of the line.

They believed the Tri-Cities market couldn’t support another grocery store and they reacted accordingly.

Though I’m doing a good job of it here, I’m really not trying to be a Debbie downer. I’m simply pointing out that, while wishful thinking is always an enjoyable pastime, whether you live in Englewood or The City in the Suburbs, it’s the market that determines the nature of the local businesses and not a public survey.

And as long as we operate under our generally capitalistic auspices, that reality that will never change.

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