Amie Sander, former Executive Director of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, has started her new job. Zander’s nearly 10 years at the Chamber saw the ward slide into economic freefall as businesses disappeared, customers shopped elsewhere, and Devon Avenue became little better than a strip mall with a failing ethnocentric shopping district at its heart. The downturn in business is less Zander’s fault than that of the merchants themselves, who have no one but themselves to blame for their poor business decisions. The improving economy has done nothing for West Ridge as stores continue to close, vacancies abound, and a clueless alderman fails to deliver an economic plan to revitalize this important commercial district.
One of the problems may well be the Chamber of Commerce itself, which seems to be in the death grip of merchants determined to force residents to accept a business model that violates the most basic principle of retailing: Give the customer what he wants. Instead, the businesses on Devon are determined to drive their closest customers away. Store owners don’t care what residents want to buy, preferring to attract customers from outside the community. Every month stores fail and new businesses with the same tired merchandise take their place.
Many residents have offered ideas for improvements in Devon retailing in many online conversations on EveryblockChicago, and Zander joined in one conversation just a few months ago. In comments perhaps more revealing than she intended, Zander admitted that she had little influence on the kinds of businesses that set up shop in the 50th Ward. Responding to comments about why the same kinds of stores continued to open where others had failed before them, Zander said:
“As far as types of business the residents want and would like to support – that\s tough. Love to hear what people want but it’s the businesses that have very specific criteria for what THEY want. Demographics, income levels, college grads, median incomes. Our fantastically diverse community is a huge asset but also can be a challenge when recruiting new businesses. I completely agree that opening more of the same is just bad for everyone. They set up and then fail. A smart business owner should look at specific criteria and look at the nearby competition. But they don’t.”
No, they don’t. The notion that residents lack the education and income to support anything other than convenience stores is the reason most blocks on Devon are home to at least three of them. In the absence of a solid business development plan, merchants who respond to community needs and demands, and an alderman committed to revitalizing the ward’s major business district, we will continue to see more of the same: same old stores, same old merchandise, same old failure.
Which brings up the question of Zander’s successor. At this writing the search for the Chamber’s new director continues. Or does it?
The Chamber is controlled by the Devon Avenue merchants, and it appears that these same merchants suggested that Shajan Kuriakose move to the ward to run for alderman. Whether they acted in concert with the alderman or independently is not clear. Kuriakose has not denied being the merchants’ candidate. On his campaign Web site Kuriakose says that his economic plan is to find out what businesses want and make it a reality. In other words, he would continue the Silverstein economic policy of ignoring residents and fully supporting anything that fills a storefront.
Cynics might think that his new residency (only 10 months) and immediate candidacy are an attempt to split the Indo-American vote between him and Zehra Quadri, thus allowing the alderman to squeak through as the winner in the first round of voting. They may be right. And it could very well be a win-win situation for Kuriakose.