The City of Evanston, the first inner ring suburb on the north end of Chicago on Lake Michigan, has seen great change in these past two decades. An urban/suburban city of 75,000 people Evanston is headed for even more change into the future. The very look of the city is radically different than it was 20 years ago, with high-rise condominiums popping up in downtown and along our light rail commuter lines (some 2,000 condos at last count); installation of new, upscale downtown retail development featuring major shopping mall tenants (Barnes & Noble, Joseph Bank, North Face, Borders, World Market,) etc.; replacement of obsolete factory buildings with big box retail on the city’s southwest side (Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, Sam’s Club); some 70 restaurants (Chef’s Station, Stained Glass, Quince, Davis Street Fish Market, Pete Miller’s. Va Pensiero, etc.) and, a reshuffling of the city’s major employers with healthcare, educational and social service institutions now accounting for almost half of all Evanston jobs. All of these changes have been a big surprise to many returning Evanstonians who have been away too long.
For many years Evanston had a strong manufacturing base along with being the largest commercial/retail district next to Chicago’s Loop and the home of Northwestern University, one of the nation’s top research universities. It was, for a time, called the “Headquarters City” because of a number of corporate head offices were located in our downtown. However, those days as a regional retail center and home to large corporate entities has passed. Moreover, with it has come a new kind of economy, one not so easily recognized.
There is a shift now occurring in Evanston’s for-profit business base – a shift away from manufacturing products or serving a regional retail market, or housing large corporate businesses. Taking the place of these older economic activities is a slow but steady in-migration of companies whose products are based on knowledge, on new ideas, on new ways of doing things better and faster. Most of these companies are young - but growing quickly - and they now fill many back offices and a good chunk of high-rise commercial space once occupied by Washington National Insurance Company, Tenneco Packaging, American Hospital Supply, Shand Morahan Insurance and others who left Evanston during the past 30 years for a variety of reasons.
These new businesses are by their very nature international in scope and market. Some are developing new and complex software and cyber systems to help make major corporations more competitive in the world economy. Others work to apply newly developed nanotechnologies – some discovered by Northwestern researchers – to problems of healthcare diagnostics, drug delivery, and to the building of machines no bigger than a molecule in size. These “knowledge-based” businesses occupy a growing amount of office space in our downtown and within our neighborhoods. They include marketing firms, web development businesses, architecture and engineering companies, and dozens of other businesses built upon applications of newly minted knowledge and new, applied technologies that have sprung up as a result of the computer, information and healthcare breakthroughs these past two decades.
Some of these companies are very small; others are growing rapidly. At least two of them have over 200 employees each in Evanston and are still growing. It is these companies that will one day become the major employers in our city - but only if we can keep them here and help them grow.
The strategy for keeping and tending to these companies is called “economic gardening”, and it is being used in a number of smaller cities throughout the US. These communities understand that it is much more effective to invest time and money into keeping and growing what you have, rather than trying to get a new company to move into a community. To make this strategy work means finding out who these companies are; how best to make contact with them; how to find out what these companies need, and then figure out how Evanston can be most helpful in supporting their growth.
Evanston Inventure, in partnership with Northwestern University, the City of Evanston, and the rest of its members will be working together in a business retention, expansion, and attraction strategy to build a new economic sector for the city based upon knowledge and entrepreneurship. If you would like to be part of this effort please call 847 864 9334 or send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.