Ravenswood corridor businesses adapt during tough times

Earlier this year, Bright Endeavors began operating out of a small factory space in the 4200 block of North Ravenswood.

The nonprofit business provides employment skills to women ages 16 to 25 through a candle-making business.

"I'm thrilled to be here," says Joan Pikas, co-founder of Bright Endeavors.  Pikas previously started another nonprofit business along the Ravenswood corridor, The Enterprising Kitchen. She is enthusiastic about the Ravenswood corridor.

"Everybody is a small business and they're very supportive," Pikas says. "I love the community."

Bright Endeavors symbolizes the diverse mix of light manufacturing, small businesses, social service agencies and artisan studios in the Ravenswood industrial corridor.

Business and government leaders are now working together to maintain the corridor's success in the face of the recession that is shutting down businesses and has unemployment hovering around 10 percent in Chicagoland.

Less expensive than the Loop

Joe Hayes, a long-time Ravenswood corridor property owner, says the declining economy is "nerve-wracking." But he added that the corridor has several advantages compared to the Loop, including free parking, convenient public transportation, low or nonexistent maintenance fees and more flexible leases.

Hayes estimated that rental rates in the corridor, at roughly $15 per square foot, are half the cost of the Loop.
The absence of residential development has been good for the corridor, according to Hayes.

Tenants, property owners and neighborhood advocates credit market forces, city government, and a vibrant community with maintaining the corridor's diverse business character.

Diversity abounds

Along the corridor, floor space that once hosted only manufacturers is now dominated by social services agencies, small offices and artists' space.

They include The Night Ministry, which offers housing, healthcare and outreach programs to homeless and at-risk youth. In 2000 the organization moved its administrative operations from Lakeview to a building it purchased at 4711 N. Ravenswood Ave.

"Open space is one of the reasons we were drawn to the area," says Tina Erickson, vice president of development and external relations for The Night Ministry. Erickson added that neighboring businesses have partnered with The Night Ministry on service projects.

One of the largest art-related businesses is the Lillstreet Art Center. In 2003 Lillstreet moved its operations to a renovated gear factory at the corner of Montrose and Ravenswood avenues.

Lillstreet is a for-profit organization that hosts artists-in-residence and provides art classes in everything from metal smithing to printmaking.

Fred Ludwig, public relations manager for Thresholds, says his agency had owned the building that houses its headquarters for nearly a decade. In 2007 Thresholds purchased a second building in the 4400 block of North Ravenswood to house its research institute.

"That's a sign that we like this area," Ludwig says.

Other occupants, however, worry about the long-term success of the corridor, especially in light of the looming national recession and looming gentrification.
"We all know industry is struggling," says Pikas of Bright Endeavors.

"I worry that the people who own the buildings won't be able to afford to keep them."

Pikas added that she remains optimistic about the corridor.

"In the last years I've seen a number of new businesses move in."

Job incubation

Some of the new businesses moved with help from JARC and the Ravenswood Industrial Council (RIC). The two nonprofits are delegate agencies for Chicago's Local Industrial Retention Initiative (LIRI).

The LIRI program provides business assistance to industrial communities in Chicago. The annual LIRI contracts come through Chicago's Department of Planning and Development and provide approximately $50,000, according to representatives of RIC and JARC.

Ken Govas, executive director of RIC, says the diversity of the corridor was beneficial to manufacturers.

"When you have businesses and artists together it's kind of a healthy combination that makes it less likely that residential [development] will move into the corridor," Govas says.

The other industrial retention agency in the corridor, JARC, is an "incubator of jobs," says its president, Ray Prendergast. In addition to serving as a LIRI agency, JARC provides job skills training for manufacturing companies through the Chicago area.

Planning for future                                               

The corridor has little residential zoning and Alderman Eugene Schulter, D-47, says he is committed to keeping it that way, so businesses can thrive.

Prendergast is enthusiastic about the possibility of components for wind energy technology being manufactured in Chicago.

Several high-tech companies already operate along North Ravenswood. To keep attracting such businesses, Schulter advocates a grant "to study the technology infrastructure needs of tech-based companies."

However, the bad economy is weighing on the mind of people along the corridor.

"We're concerned about holding onto folks," says Michael Buccitelli, JARC's real estate director. "I don't think we'll know the full impact until the first or second quarter of next year."