Entering its fourth year, Highland Park’s Downtown Business Alliance, better known as the Alliance, is adjusting to navigate the economic downturn that began about the same time the group was founded.
A partnership of the Downtown Property Owners Association, the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce and the city, the group was created in 2008 to stimulate commerce in the central business district.
In its initial stages, the Alliance has concentrated on developing infrastructure while sponsoring some events to bring more business to town.
Now it is hoping to turn the corner with the economy.
“We were focused on the building-end of what we were trying to do,” said Sarah Weibenson, the group's executive director. “We did a lot of work getting the organization going. I feel very good about where we are.”
At the beginning, the Alliance developed an e-mail list of more than 3,400 people and built a presence on Facebook, where it has close to 1,000 "Likes." Using that base, it sponsored a successful holiday shopping event last winter to stimulate business in downtown Highland Park, according to its chairman, Al Klairmont.
Property owner Larry Hillman, who is active with the Downtown Property Owners Association but not on the Alliance board, was thrilled with the holiday event. He wants to see more activities like it.
“Shopping Highland Park for the holidays was a beautiful event,” Hillman said. “Everyone felt good about it. We did something really special.”
Klairmont is pleased with the infrastructure the group has developed. He is also happy with the partnership the property owners have created with the Chamber of Commerce and the city.
“We have represented the owners and others involved by developing a long-term view,” Klairmont said. “Everyone is in gear and ready to go.”
Planned events include a free movie each Saturday night over the summer at Port Clinton Square as well as Thursday night concerts, which have been an institution in downtown Highland Park for more than a generation.
“Every Saturday night we’ll have a movie on a big screen,” Klairmont said. “Hopefully, people will have dinner and go to a movie.”
A downtown barbecue is planned in September and a fashion week is scheduled for October to kickoff the holiday shopping season.
With its foundation in place, the next step is taking stock of the needs of retailers, property owners, city officials and others who have a stake in the central business district in help to guide the future.
“We’re going to be seeking the input of all stakeholders in the coming months,” Klairmont said. “I want each and every one to get involved. We want as many different ideas and opinions as we can get.”
Hillman, for one, wants to see more stakeholders in the success of downtown Highland Park volunteer their efforts to help drive business.
“We should spend more resources on volunteer involvement as a service organization,” he said. “We could get a lot of people together and involved in improving downtown.”
Klairmont is reluctant to rely on unpaid help. He would rather depend on accountable professionals to organize and promote events.
“It’s very difficult to count on volunteers,” Klairmont said. “Everyone embraces a love of Highland Park, but we need to count on professionals to organize all the details.”
Both Klairmont and Hillman agree that Late Nite Highland Park, a creation of former Councilwoman Terri Olian, has led to the type of programs and events that help bring business to downtown Highland Park.
When Olian started the volunteer effort, she persuaded business owners, particularly restaurants, to remain open later on Friday night and feature entertainment primarily from high school students. She saw it as a way to stimulate local business and provide a place for the city’s youth to congregate in a healthy way.
“The owners learned keeping their doors open later could be a benefit to themselves and the community as well,” Olian said.
The program expanded to include professional entertainers, who are paid by the businesses.
“It now goes beyond Friday night to anytime it is a benefit," said Olian, who lost her bid to become the city's mayor in April.