When the village of Riverside hired Sonya Abt as its new community development director in 2014, one aspect of the village she was charged with examining was economic development.
For decades, residents and the business community have complained that village policies have made it difficult for businesses to prosper, from a building code that placed too many hurdles in front of developers, to an antiquated sign code, to government officials who were happy to keep the business community at arm’s length.
But that is starting to change. Since Abt’s arrival, she has tackled amending the sign code — an effort that bogged down earlier this year — and worked to streamline some of the hoops that businesses and developers must jump through to gain village approvals.
And recently she quietly began a new program aimed at connecting directly with both new business owners and ones who have been in the village for years: Face-to-face visits with business owners in order to see how the village’s efforts are perceived and to find out how the village can do more.
“It’s a standard thing in economic development,” said Abt, “to make a point of going out and talking with businesses on a regular basis to get an idea of how things are going and working with the business community to get feedback.”
Essentially, Abt wants to work through the list of businesses in Riverside. She’s making a more concerted effort to connect with those in the central business district first, since those are the ones that will keenly feel the effects of the downtown streetscape project later this year.
“I’m just contacting people individually and hoping to work my way through the downtown,” Abt said.
Her first meeting was with the owner of one of the village’s newest businesses, 34 East Lounge, a small bar across the street from Centennial Park on East Avenue. The bar opened the night of last year’s Holiday Stroll.
One of the things that came out of that conversation was a request to provide better and more visible content for prospective business owners on the Riverside village website. The village has budgeted $45,000 in 2015 to upgrade the website and will seek requests for proposals from firms in the future.
Abt was accompanied on that visit by Kristine Herbst, a member of the Riverside Economic Development Commission. Herbst said it was important for the village to reach out to the existing business community, which is an invaluable resource for economic development.
“Our current people are our best audience,” said Herbst, who learned that the owner of the 34 East Lounge, Natalie Oblazny, learned about Riverside through a friend of hers, the owner of Fiore Gourmet Bakery, which is located in the same building.
“If you can establish a relationship from the get-go, it makes a world of difference,” Herbst said. “There’s something to momentum. If you can get one or two more businesses, you can get a snowball effect.”
Apart from getting intelligence about what’s going on in the local business community and gaining insights into what the village can do to help promote economic development, there’s value in Riverside government being seen as approachable, said Herbst.
“We’re doing it to be there, to tell them we do care,” Herbst said. “People like to feel like you’re reaching out to them.”
While the outreach effort has just started, members of Riverside’s business community appreciate the new interest in government trying to establish closer ties with them.
“I think it’s great trying some sort of initiative,” said Robin Mooney, of Arcade Antiques on East Burlington Street in downtown Riverside. “I’m very excited to see so many people in the village [government] interested in development and retaining the downtown community. I’ve heard really good things about what Sonya is going to do.”