Geneva Commons remains popular even though it has empty storefronts, but can it last?
The Geneva Commons has been open for business along Randall Road in Geneva for 17 years, initially opening as part of a trend to feature open-air shopping after decades of retailers seeking to pull customers into enclosed shopping malls.
Because the Geneva Commons has been with us for nearly two decades, one has to wonder about its long-term staying power. We've seen a few local cases of shopping malls eventually faltering.
This is not to say the Geneva Commons is in some sort of trouble. That doesn't appear to be the case, especially after new courtyard upgrades were completed. But a quick count when driving through the complex revealed more than 20 empty storefronts. And this comes at a time when our economy is humming along at an acceptable pace.
Geneva Commons managers did not respond to my inquiries about what new places might be coming to fill empty spots, or what they would consider an acceptable number of empty locations.
Because the shopping center appears to be doing well, despite the vacancies, it's possible management might not be inclined to speculate about the future.
More importantly, it would be wise for Geneva city officials to envision a time, maybe another decade or fewer years from now, when the vacancies far outweigh the openings -- and to have some sort of game plan in place.
Economy and consumer spending aside, we know much now about the challenges of brick-and-mortar retail. A lot of consumers, especially young ones, mostly shop online. Sure, many retailers benefit from that by offering both online, mobile app and physical store experiences, but as that pendulum shifts more to e-commerce, it doesn't do a storefront a great service.
The Geneva Commons represents a different animal than the other key shopping mall areas that turned up in the Tri-Cities in the past. Various factors came into play regarding success or failure of those retail developments. For the sake of conversation, it doesn't hurt to be reminded about which way the wind can blow on these developments.
Charlestowne Mall opened with much hand shaking and back slapping in St. Charles in 1991. By the time its 17-year mark came up in 2008, many cracks in the armor were showing with empty storefronts. By the time its 20th anniversary came up, it was a weak shell of its former self. The recession pretty much put it out of its misery.
The mall didn't officially close until 2017, with the Von Maur store and Classic Cinema theaters being the last units standing.
The St. Charles Mall on the west side of the city opened in late 1979 and 17 years later it was on the brink of closing, partly because Charlestowne had opened on the east side. The St. Charles Mall site sat empty for several years until it was leveled in 2003.
However, there is occasional news that our traditional mall setting is not dying. American Dream, a new mega mall in New Jersey, opened its first phase last week. Woodfield in Schaumburg and the Mall of America in Minneapolis seem to be faring well.
The American Dream concept had been in the works since 2011, and online shopping has exploded since. But developers are banking on consumers' deep-rooted habits of patronizing something new and exciting -- even if you actually have to walk into it.
Some more Gia Mia: In case you haven't noticed, the empty Pizzeria Neo location at 31 S. First St. in St. Charles is being converted to a Gia Mia restaurant. It gives the BG Hospitality Group that operates these Italian eateries three locations in the Tri-Cities.
The restaurant development company operates Gia Mia at 13 N. Third St. in Geneva, as well as the Livia Italian restaurant, 2017 S. Third St.
It also operates restaurants in Wheaton and Hinsdale.
Director of operations Josh Bales showed us around the shell of the St. Charles site, which he and his brother hope to open sometime in early January 2020.
"It all depends on the delivery of a wood-burning pizza oven that we have ordered and is being shipped via boat," Bales said. "We want to have that in place before we open."
Gia Mia actually takes over a location that previously housed two businesses -- Neo's and a small wine-and-cheese bar. It will now seat up to 130 people and include a separate party room.
The large bar area will be in the front of the restaurant, with seating all around it.
"The Gia Mia in Geneva is warm and intimate," Bales said. "The St. Charles site will be a bigger and more open atmosphere."
Any way you size it, St. Charles is going to see a nice addition to its increasingly popular First Street plaza.
A nature boy: Jay Womack may not be a household name in Kane County, but he's a guy you should definitely know.
He'll be honored Friday, Nov. 1, for being named the 2019 Outstanding Citizen Volunteer of the Year by the Illinois Association of Park Districts.
Womack is a career landscape architect and chair of Geneva's Natural Resources Committee. The Geneva Park District and Kane County Forest Preserve District have lauded his years of volunteer work on their behalf.
In addition to hosting restoration days at Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva with various organizations, he also somehow finds time to chair fundraising events for Geneva and the park district foundation.
That sort of commitment results in things like the creation of Hawk's Hollow Nature Playground at Peck Farm Park from funds at the park district foundation's annual Autumn Fest, an event he co-chairs.
I am not exaggerating when saying Womack's list of accomplishments and volunteer efforts could fill this whole column space.
But let's at least share this: If you notice a lot of new trees going up in Geneva to replace those lost to the emerald ash borer, Womack's been part of that drive. He's also a key part of various soil and conservation committees throughout the Chicago area.
If you like the concept and enjoy the imaginative art of rain barrels, Womack has his fingerprints on that as well. He's a volunteer for the Rain Barrels on Parade campaign.
Some family secrets?: The thought of taking a deeper dive into my family history has always intrigued me, but I fear unpleasant surprises. My grandfather liked to tell the story about when, as a young barber on the Southwest side of Chicago, he gave a young Al Capone a shave and a haircut.
What if I somehow found out there was more to that chance meeting than just a shave and haircut?
Of course, I'm being a bit silly, but I suspect plenty of folks have been surprised when seeking information about their roots.
But genealogy research is quite popular these days, and the St. Charles Public Library has offered a successful educational program on the topic, one that continues at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5 in the Carnegie Community Room at the library.
Genealogist Primas Brennan will present a program that explains what is termed the "big four" of online genealogy databases -- Ancestry, FamilySearch, FindMyPast and MyHeritage.
Those interested in attending can register on the library website or by calling (630) 584-0076.