An advisory commission created earlier this year to look at the challenges of and solutions for economic redevelopment in North Riverside rolled out a proposal last week that envisions establishing an entertainment district – a smaller-scale version of Rosemont — east of the North Riverside Park Mall.

Jason Bianco, chairman of the North Riverside Economic Development Commission, told members of the village board’s finance committee on June 17 that officials needed to change the perception of North Riverside as “the place with the mall.”

Almost all of the dozen or so commission members attended the finance committee meeting. The commission’s proposal comes on the heels of a report by an economic development consultant that recommended a range of initiatives, including engaging in a comprehensive planning process and a review of the village’s zoning code.

The commission’s proposal did not address those specific recommendations, but it did outline an ambitious vision for an entertainment district incorporating green space, restaurants and a live entertainment venue on the eastern edge of the North Riverside Park Mall’s parking lot. 

More in line with the consultant’s report, commissioners also encouraged a multi-pronged approach to economic development that might include everything from a rebranding and marketing campaign to the creation of a development corporation or chamber of commerce, creating a strategy for poaching attractive businesses from neighboring communities and landing a cannabis dispensary.

“From a business point of view, you have to look at this as branding,” said commission member Paul Porter, branch manager of Fifth-Third Bank, 7222 Cermak Road. “Many towns around you have already done this, and they did it decades ago. So if you’re not good with the rebranding, you’re going to be left behind.”

Commission member Lenora Giurini, a North Riverside resident and insurance industry professional, said the village can’t rely on retail sales taxes growing in the future. Instead of the mall being the defining commercial feature of the village, she said, perhaps there’s an alternative.

“Retail is not the wave of the future,” Giurini said, pointing to high-profile closures like Carson Pirie Scott and Sears’ downsizing.

The village and mall could perhaps partner, she said, to create new attractions, like the entertainment district, to draw tourists and change the perception that the mall is a trouble spot.

“The mall is being known for a gathering place where trouble exists,” Giurini said. “Even though we know it doesn’t happen all the time, it gets hyped out in the media.”

Bianco said an entertainment district that would feature higher-end restaurants might attract a different crowd to North Riverside.

“How do we get people over there that are interested in not just going to buy hats and shoes at the mall, or hanging out at the food court?” Bianco asked. “Can we build something around the mall that will attract people, and it doesn’t have to be the same people who are shopping for shoes and hats.

“The culture will change if we bring new people.”

The concept of the entertainment district is based on Rosemont’s Parkway Bank Park district, said Bianco. The 200,000-square-foot Rosemont attraction features several restaurants, an ice rink in the winter, movie theaters, live entertainment venues and more.

“Our idea was to bring that here on a different level, starting at Hobby Lobby and working our way down that strip,” Bianco said.

The complex could feature a row of restaurants facing the mall, Bianco said, with an open space behind it that could be home to an entertainment venue.

“If we build this, people will come,” Bianco said. “We become an entertainment stop for people.”

The commission also identified the northwest corner of the mall property, where the Sears auto center sits, for the construction of a business park that could host business meetings, co-working spaces or office space for rent.

Commissioners also called for connecting the entertainment center with bike paths and encouraging “family-friendly establishments along 26th Street” and creating more of a neighborhood, pedestrian-friendly area along Cermak Road west of First Avenue.

As far as landing a cannabis dispensary goes, Bianco said “it would be ridiculous for us not to pursue it.” Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., who attended the finance committee meeting, said the village has already been approached as a possible dispensary location.

“We’re working on it,” he said.

The commission is expected to get input from residents via an online survey in the near future. The ambitious proposal, however, is broadly conceptual and likely would require the input of a professional planner. Exactly how that might happen, is unclear.

“I think that the board really needs to develop its strategic plan and its comprehensive plan first,” said North Riverside Finance Director Sue Scarpiniti. “Start mapping out the vision first and then all of the tools will follow thereafter.”