Can grants help Mundelein fill its empty storefronts?
Even before the Great Recession prompted a run on "going out of business" signs, Mundelein officials frequently heard complaints about the plethora of vacant storefronts in town.
Village leaders weren't doing enough to attract new businesses or to help local stores thrive, people groused. And, as the economy worsened and more businesses went under or relocated, they seemed unable to stop the vacancies from multiplying.
But that may be changing.
A relatively new program that provides financial assistance to business owners improving their properties is gaining steam, with grants totaling $28,108 going to local entrepreneurs just in the last four months.
And most of the recipients are businesses establishing themselves at locations that had been vacant space.
The newest grant was approved last week. Trustees agreed to give nearly $12,208 to an entrepreneur turning a former art studio on Lake Street into a showroom for his cabinetry business.
Tony Ciucci, owner of Cabinet Creations Plus, said the grant was a key reason he chose to set up shop in Mundelein instead of Grayslake, Vernon Hills or other communities he scouted.
"That's a huge plus," Ciucci said. "I wish more towns did this."
Village Administrator John Lobaito believes Mundelein's investment in local businesses will pay off as those operations create local jobs and generate cash for the town, via sales taxes and fees.
"That added revenue can be used for streets or anything else the village decides will benefit the community," Lobaito said. "The community will be far better off if we grow (our) business sector."
Formally known as the Business Incentive Grant program, the effort launched in early 2014. It has a $100,000 annual budget.
Grants of up to $25,000 are available, covering half the cost of an improvement project. Instead of getting the money up front, recipients are reimbursed for their expenses.
Interior renovations, landscaping changes and lighting improvements are among the projects that qualify. The work simply needs to be more than cosmetic.
"The idea is that the improvements don't go away if the tenant leaves," Lobaito said.
Applicants initially were limited to businesses in the downtown area, a wedge-shaped district that's mostly south of Route 176 and east of Lake Street.
The first grant was awarded in May 2014 to Luke's of Mundelein, a fast-food restaurant that moved from its long-standing home at 300 N. Lake St. to an empty KFC at 551 N. Lake St.
Owner Mike Majestic used the $6,800 grant to help pay for a new brick patio. The old Luke's had outdoor customer seating, and Majestic wanted to keep that tradition alive.
Majestic's renovation of the site was costly, and he appreciated the assistance with the patio.
"Every little bit helps," he said.
No other business owners applied for grants the first year. But officials didn't give up.
Instead, they expanded its reach to allow applications from businesses anywhere in Mundelein, not just the downtown.
They also promoted the program more, talking about it in village communications and the media. They made personal visits to local merchants to tell them about grant opportunities.
Business owners took notice.
This past June, the owners of the building that houses Best Car Care II, 131 E. Maple Ave., got a $500 grant to help cover landscaping improvements outside the shop.
In August, a business called Bosacki's Home Brew got the largest grant approved so far, for $15,400. The money will help cover the cost of plumbing and electrical work and other improvements at the business, which will open this fall at 610 E. Hawley St.
Ciucci is the latest recipient. He's turning the former Crave Art shop at 515 N. Lake St. into a showroom for Cabinet Creation Plus, his new venture. The space also will serve as the headquarters for Ciucci's contracting business, Anthony Vincent Construction.
"I came to Mundelein for two reasons. The first reason is, we found the building and the location," said Ciucci, of Round Lake Beach. "The second reason is, we found out about the grant program."
Crews are building a new facade and renovating the inside of the building ahead of a planned November opening. Ciucci estimated he's spending nearly $300,000 on the project.
The village grant covers only a fraction of that cost, but Ciucci is grateful.
"It enabled us to put more into the showroom to show the client or (to have) more capital," he said. "That's covering months of expenses."
Ciucci is just as excited about the Lake Street location. It's one of the most traveled roadways in Mundelein, and people have taken notice of the new business.
"We've already sold two kitchens out of here, and we're not even open yet," Ciucci said as he stood inside the gutted building. "I have no doubt in my mind that we're going to thrive."
Ciucci said he expects more entrepreneurs will look to open businesses in Mundelein because of the incentive program.
"It's a no-brainer," he said. "Anybody who has a good business plan and sees the traffic pattern that Lake Street has -- the possibilities are endless."
Just down the street at Luke's, Majestic is thrilled village officials are using the grant program to fill empty storefronts.
"I think they're seeing it's working," he said. "It's been a long time coming."
Lobaito believes the grant program will continue gaining momentum. More than a dozen additional business or property owners have picked up applications, he said.
"We get inquiries about the program every week," he said.
Filling empty storefronts isn't merely good for the village economy. It's also good for Mundelein's image -- something officials have struggled with for decades.
"We are excited about the partnerships we are forming with our business community," Lobaito said. "(They) are positively changing the appearance of the community one building at a time."