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updated: 7/8/2011 4:23 PM

Wheaton cautiously optimistic about downtown revival

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  • A boarded-up Jewel store in downtown Wheaton remains an eyesore, but many city officials are optimistic the business climate is showing signs of improvement.

       A boarded-up Jewel store in downtown Wheaton remains an eyesore, but many city officials are optimistic the business climate is showing signs of improvement.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Gerry Gorski lives at the Courthouse Square in Wheaton and opposes the developer's request to amend its agreement with the city to allow an assisted-living facility. As it stands, the empty shell of a midrise is a sign of the economic wear the city has felt.

       Gerry Gorski lives at the Courthouse Square in Wheaton and opposes the developer's request to amend its agreement with the city to allow an assisted-living facility. As it stands, the empty shell of a midrise is a sign of the economic wear the city has felt.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

Despite some highly visible empty lots, the shell of what the city hoped would be another midrise condominium complex and a long-vacant building where a Jewel store once operated, Wheaton officials say they remain optimistic about downtown.

The pending arrival of a Mariano's Fresh Market grocery store at the old Hubble Middle School site has officials looking on the bright side.

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Councilman Tom Mouhelis said the store at the corner of Roosevelt and Naperville roads should give the city's business community a shot in the arm.

"We have 65,000 cars driving by it every day," he said. "They are going to be a tremendous asset and it will draw people into the city from the surrounding area. I really think it will draw people into downtown Wheaton."

In the meantime, the city council must figure out what to do with an empty lot at the northeast corner of Front and Cross streets. Officials recently pulled the plug on a planned 198-unit condominium development because deadlines had not been met.

Just across the tracks sits the Courthouse Square condominiums, which was once an ambitious three-building development plan. That plan fell through and officials are now considering a change to allow an assisted-living facility at the site, which currently contains a metal shell of what was to be the second of the three midrises.

And amid the excitement of Mariano's comes the reminder that the old Jewel site has been vacant since it shut down in February 2008.

"They want to sell the (building), God bless them," Mouhelis said. "I wish they would. It's an eyesore."

But ever since the store's parent company, Supervalu Inc., slapped a $3.25 million price tag on it, the site has sat empty and drawn little interest. City Councilman Todd Scalzo said the parent company sees the property as nothing more than a line item in a huge budget.

"(Supervalu doesn't) really see it the way we do," Councilman Todd Scalzo said. "We see it as a central part of downtown that has been a huge eyesore for years ... We want to see it better and they are not necessarily of that same mindset."

The council's mindset right now remains unclear, as does its role in the rejuvenation of downtown and those lots.

The city has created three tax increment finance districts downtown during the past 20 years. The first helped supplement the second financially but expires in 2016.

The third has created some controversy. In 2005, the city supplemented the project with $7.7 million in upfront TIF money on a promise the developer would execute its plan to establish upscale residences at the site. Now that developer wants to amend the agreement to allow an assisted-living facility.

New council member Jeanne Ives said that proves fronting the money was a bad decision.

"I don't think it was an appropriate use to subsidize luxury townhouses, condominiums and office space," Ives said.

Ives said the business climate downtown must improve if the city wants to see more progress. She said she has heard anecdotally that Wheaton is not business-friendly.

To fix this, she said, the city should use all its resources, including residents' networks and even investigate hiring a qualified commercial broker.

"Businesses have to want to come here," she said, while also noting that the city remains very friendly toward families. "We have to reach out and let people know what a great place Wheaton is to do business."

Councilman Scalzo is quick to point out what he considers positive momentum that has been part of the city for years, including the recent successes of Taste of Wheaton and weekly Vintage Ride nights.

"(Taste of Wheaton) was quintessential Wheaton, Main Street America in the summertime," he said. "That is when you say, 'This is what is great about Wheaton.' When you line up the negatives, you feel more negative about these different projects."

What the city's role can and should be in spurring the local economy remains a point that the council cannot find consensus on.

"I would like us to be more forward thinking," Scalzo said. "Otherwise, we are at the whims of the market and we see that's not the best place to be right now."

When he first arrived in Wheaton in 1973, Mouhelis said downtown was much less bustling than today.

"You could shoot a cannon on one end of Front Street and you wouldn't hit anybody," he said. "We are better off than some but worse off than others ... Little by little, it's getting better."

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