Complaints about Riverside’s ability to attract businesses have been aired for so long, they’ve become part of the scenery, like oak trees and curvy streets.
At one time Riverside’s downtown had small businesses that catered to residents’ needs, from an independent pharmacy to an ice cream shop, diners, an appliance store, a hardware store, and clothing stores.
Of course, every small town had those kinds of stores at one time. Truth be told, most traditional downtowns in small villages like Riverside haven’t looked like that in many years.
Still, Riverside has gotten branded over the years as a tough place to do business. Part of that reputation was built by government making it somewhat difficult to develop property. If you wanted to build a new structure or do a major renovation, you had to wade through multiple village commissions before getting a vote from the village board. It was a time-consuming, sometimes expensive process.
There are those in the community who would argue those hurdles were put in place to slow down development that might be harmful to Riverside’s historic character. But even smaller items, like signs, had to go through a full plan commission review.
The long and short of it was that the village earned a reputation as being difficult to deal with if you were a prospective business owner.
With the hiring of a new community development director last year, Riverside has sought to change that reputation. One of the first things the village did was move aggressively on a downtown streetscape redevelopment project that aims to make the downtown more physically attractive to prospective businesses and customers.
At the same time, the village board commissioned a rewriting of the village’s sign code, one that would provide businesses more opportunities for signage, including new types of signs that formerly were prohibited.
While that effort has stalled over whether to outlaw or “grandfather in” signs that would be made nonconforming by the amended code, we believe the issue eventually will get worked out, though it may not happen until the streetscape work is completed.
And finally, the community development director, in conjunction with the Riverside Economic Development Commission, has started actively reaching out to existing businesses in Riverside to get input on how village government can be more responsive and to keep a finger on the pulse of the village’s business districts.
While that seems like something the village should have been doing prior to 2015, it’s a positive move during a time of so much change in downtown Riverside. By 2016, East Burlington Street is going to look a lot different, and the village wants to be able to respond to any improvement in business conditions.
Opening lines of communication with those who can tell success stories to others who may be thinking of coming to town is a good idea. There are success stories in Riverside; the village just needs to do a better job of telling them.