The Case to Support Chicago Legacy Businesses
Chicago Legacy Businesses are unique, authentic, precious assets. They are also endangered.
Pressure from rising rents and competition from national chains has forced many Chicago Legacy Businesses to close. The economic impact of the pandemic has made it even more challenging for them to survive. Chicago Legacy Businesses have supporting Chicago for decades. They have anchored neighborhoods, provided jobs, and delighted generations of Chicagoans and tourists. Chicago Legacy Businesses are a reflection of Chicago which is culturally rich and racially diverse. Their authenticity and uniqueness contribute to the quality of life for Chicagoans.
What is a Chicago Legacy Business?
Chicago Legacy Businesses are typically muti-generational, family-owned, locally-operated, customer-facing businesses in operation for over 35 years. Business owners often live in their community and employ people from their community. Many are restaurants, but there are many more categories. A few examples of Chicago Legacy Businesses include: The Berghoff, Italian Village, Margie’s Candies, Manny’s Deli, Valois Cafeteria, Lou Mitchell’s, Green Door Tavern, Orange Garden, Daley’s Restaurant, and Central Camera. There are many more Chicago Legacy Businesses still operating, but the list of permanently closed Chicago Legacy Businesses is much, much longer.
- Shortly after its 100-year anniversary, Dinkel’s Bakery closed its doors in 2022. The 3rd-generation owner was ready to retire and the 4th generation wasn’t interested in running the business. The building was worth more than the business, and so it was sold for new development. When news broke that Dinkel’s Bakery was closing, there was a collective cry of anguish from Chicagoans who have treasured it for generations. Lines formed around the block as Chicagoan’s came to savor the taste one last time and pay their last respects to a beloved institution.
- Schaller’s Pump in Bridgeport was closed in 2017 after 136 years in business.
- After a 2020 fire from looting, miraculously (and with wildly successful GoFundMe campaign) 122-Year-Old Central Camera Reopened in 2022
- When news broke in 2023 that the 3rd-generation owner of Margie’s Candies has passed away, Chicago collectively sighed that the 4th generation owner was committed to continuing the beloved family business.
Economic Impact of Chicago Legacy Businesses
Chicago Legacy Businesses are a powerful economic engine which provide significant benefits to Chicago.
- Loyalty – They generate fierce loyalty that keeps Chicagoans coming back to the ‘old neighborhood’, even after they have moved to a different part of Chicago, to the suburbs, or even out of state.
- Tourism – When tourists come to Chicago, they seek the genuine, authentic and unique Chicago experiences that Chicago Legacy Businesses provide. Chicago is expected to see over 60 million visitors in 2023. The economic benefit from tourists coming to Chicago should be harnessed and leveraged by Chicago Legacy Businesses.
- Employment – Chicago Legacy Business provide a strong, stable employment base. They typically pay long-term employees more generously than national chains.
- Local Ownership – Chicago Legacy Businesses owners typically live nearby so the profits from the business stay local, while profits from chains are often skimmed off by out-of-town corporations and firms with little or no personal connection to Chicago.
Strategies to Support Chicago Legacy Businesses
Chicago Legacy Businesses provide significant benefits to Chicago and therefore deserve additional support from the City of Chicago and people of Chicago. Chicago Legacy Businesses should be recognized, celebrated and supported.
- Recognition – An extensive list should be created to identify Chicago Legacy Businesses. This would provide a baseline for numbers, types, location, and more. Focus groups could provide critical feedback to help assess strains, struggles, and opportunities for growth. Additionally, it would provide an early warning system for those businesses with an aging owner looking to retire without a succession plan. With more time and publicity, perhaps buyers could be identified with interest in continuing to operate the business.
- Celebration – Chicago Legacy Businesses are a precious Chicago asset that should be widely promoted. Too often, the first media attention happens following the announcement that they are closing. The more publicity and attention they are given, the more likely new Chicagoans and tourists are to patronize these businesses.
- Support – While promotion is important to generate additional foot traffic and sales, the City of Chicago and aligned business and tourism organizations should create a series of policy programs to provide financial support to Chicago Legacy Businesses. This could take the form of Small Business Investment Funds for physical improvements. It could also take the form of property tax relief, or credits tied to numbers of employees. The specifics of the support can be determined through conversation with stakeholders, but there must be proactive and material steps taken to support Chicago Legacy Businesses.
CASE STUDY: San Francisco Legacy Business Program Model
While Chicago Legacy Businesses are unique, programs to support legacy business are not. San Francisco Heritage pioneered a SF Legacy Bars and Restaurant pilot program in 2013. It proved successful and in 2015 the City of San Francisco Planning Department took over and expanded the program. The stated mission of the San Francisco Legacy Business program is as follows. “Small business preservation is an important step in maintaining a city’s cultural identity, which helps provide local residents with employment, a sense of place, and community involvement. Our goal is to provide assistance to businesses that have been long-standing pillars of our community through marketing, business assistance, and specialized grants for our local small businesses that are a part of the Legacy Business Program.”
San Francisco Legacy Business Registry & Historic Preservation Fund Program Overview
Purpose & Structure: San Francisco’s Legacy Business Program recognizes longstanding, community-serving businesses as valuable cultural assets to San Francisco and offers grants to encourage their continued viability and success. The program has two parts:
- The Legacy Business Registry is open to businesses that have operated in San Francisco for 30 or more years and have contributed to a neighborhood’s history and/or the identity of a particular community. The Historic Preservation Commission provides an advisory recommendation as to whether the business meets this criterion. The business must commit to maintaining the physical features or traditions that define the business, including craft, culinary, or art forms. The Office of Small Business manages the program and provides educational and promotional assistance to Legacy Businesses.
- The Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund offers two grants:
- Legacy Businesses are eligible for Business Assistance Grants of $500 per full-time employee per year. The grants are capped at $50,000 a year;
- Landlords who extend the leases of such businesses for at least 10 years may apply for Rent Stabilization Grants of $4.50 per square foot of space leased per year. The grants are capped at $22,500 a year.
Significance: The program is the first in the nation to recognize notable small businesses as historic assets and incentivize their preservation. It has moved San Francisco’s preservation program beyond the protection of buildings to include support for the traditional businesses that are fundamental to any city’s historic character. The Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund was created though a November 2015 ballot measure that voters approved by a 57% to 43% margin, demonstrated widespread public support for a broad interpretation of cultural heritage. Impact: To date, over 250 businesses have been added to the Registry.
Legacy Businesses Anchor San Francisco Neighborhoods statement from the San Francisco Office of Small Business Website:
“San Francisco is a world-class city known for its many distinctive neighborhoods. Contributing to the uniqueness of the city are the people, architecture, streetscape, geography, weather, transportation, history, culture — and businesses. San Francisco wouldn’t be San Francisco without its many independent, locally-owned businesses. “In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs remarked on the importance of neighborhood businesses: ‘The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop…’ “Our neighborhood businesses – including retailers, service providers, manufacturers, nonprofit organizations, and more – are the places that give the city its character. They’re the bedrock of our communities and a draw for tourists from around the world. “Preserving our legacy businesses is critical to maintaining what it is that makes San Francisco a special place.”