Busy at work helping customers with various projects, Kate Crofford said she had not even noticed that a number of storefronts neighboring her Madison Street business had recently gone dark. But just a few doors down the street at Kay’s Bakery, manager Georgette Principato had wondered why she no longer smelled the garlic that usually wafted over from a now-shuttered Italian restaurant.
A walking tour of Madison Street, hailed as the epicenter of the community’s economic rebirth, reveals more than a dozen empty properties in various states of turnover. And with fears of recession squeezing the national economy, the community is perhaps vulnerable to regular bouts with dormancy.
“Everybody says we’re in a recession and it scares me,” Principato said. “I hope things get better for everybody.”
Tucked between Crofford’s Briolette Beads and More at 7322 Madison St. and the bakery at 7332 Madison St. are two vacant properties that for years had been commercial landmarks. The former Reich and Becker real estate office at the corner of Circle and Madison streets was shuttered at the end of October, ending a decades-long run for that company. At 410 Circle Ave. around the corner, the popular La Piazza restaurant folded last month while the owners continue to wage a legal battle over the businesses’ finances.
“I hadn’t even noticed honestly, because there’s so much influx,” said Crofford, who manages the craft supply store. “Madison Street still feels pretty vibrant.”
A pair of gas stations on the strip closed months ago, leaving vacant and dilapidated properties as the street’s bookends. A recently opened cigar shop at 7410 Madison St. has shut down for renovations. The former home of a grocery store is looking for a new tenant. And four recently rehabbed properties in the 7200 block, 7400 block and 7500 block sit empty.
Next to one of those renovated spaces, at 7511 Madison St., Lisa Tobias is getting set to board up her clothing store, At 75 Eleven. Tobias opened only 18 months ago and said she isn’t sure whether the economy, the location or lousy timing contributed to the downfall of her first entrepreneurial effort. She’s selling off her inventory, mostly on weekends.
“I definitely think we’re in the start of a recession,” Tobias said.
Will Crowden is a broker with SR Commercial Real Estate Advisors in Chicago and focuses on the Forest Park area. He represents the owner of a vacant storefront at 7507 Madison St. that is housed within the large multi-use property that also shelters Tobias’ shop.
Market conditions make this a tough time to recruit national chains, according to Crowden, and many of the novice entrepreneurs at the local level will be frightened as well. People working from home are less likely to risk expanding their business into a commercial property right now, he said.
“Buyers are a little bit more cautious,” Crowden said.
But that doesn’t mean that development along Madison Street has, or will, come to a halt. According to Crowden, most anybody who is shopping for space in these economic conditions likely has more business savvy.
The vacant lot on the northwest corner of Harlem and Madison streets, formerly occupied by a Shell station, is under contract for development, according to Mayor Anthony Calderone, but he declined to give specifics.
Business owners Matt and Connie Brown have committed to expanding their ice cream shop at 7347 Madison St. and the chef of the now defunct La Piazza announced March 18 as the opening date for his new restaurant at 7636 Madison St.
Village Administrator Mike Sturino said the perception of an economic slide on Madison Street is fueled by the high visibility of several of the empty storefronts. Speaking anecdotally, vacancy and turnover rates are lower than they were three years ago, said Sturino.
“It’s not time to pull the alarm bells yet,” Sturino said.