Economic woes vex residents

Online Poster

Online Poster

By Nate Sandstrom

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles focusing on the economic problems facing the Philo Road business district in southeast Urbana.

At the north end of the Philo Road business district in Urbana, an empty gas station with broken windows stands on the west side of the road. Two old and rusty pickup trucks are parked in the corners of its gravel parking lot. One has a flat tire; the other has a bed full of used tires.

On the east side, an empty building is marked by an outline of letters that spell “Payless Shoe Source.” Farther back from the street, empty parking lots stand in front of what used to be Kmart and Jewel stores. The Kmart’s windows are now boarded up – the shoppers who once spilled through their doors are now a distant memory.

The Philo Road business district was once a destination for many shoppers in the Champaign-Urbana area. Now, it is more like a ghost town. In the last two years, a number of major retail stores have left. All that remains of them are big-box buildings that are too small for today’s large general merchandise retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target.

The problem of what to do with these types of buildings faces communities across the nation. Empty businesses create a blemish in the area and damage a city’s ability to collect tax revenue from the sites. They also remind neighborhood residents of the loss of nearby shopping opportunities. In Urbana, they are sorely missed by many of the more than 300 senior citizens who live in the area and those who do not have cars.

Problems for seniors

Charlene McQueen, who has lived in Florida House, a home for elderly citizens on Philo Road, since 1997, said residents of her building used to be able to walk a few blocks to Kmart or to the neighborhood Jerry’s IGA grocery store. An abundance of retail stores used to occupy the once-thriving Philo Road business district that lies between Florida Avenue on the north, Mumford Drive on the south, Cottage Grove Avenue on the west and Sunnycrest Apartments on the east. Today she takes a bus several miles across town to Country Fair or the Market Place Mall in Champaign.

“The buses are really ideal,” said McQueen, who is turning 70 in two weeks. But what bothers her, she added, is “the time we have to spend traveling.”

A round trip to get groceries now takes McQueen a little less than two hours.

“If you have more than one place to go, it will take four hours,” McQueen said.

Many Philo Road neighborhood residents said they especially miss the Kmart store.

“Many times you just need a pair of socks,” said Susan Gabriel, 79, who also lives in Florida House. “It was so convenient.”

After Kmart announced they would close 323 stores in January 2003, including the one on Philo Road, more than 6,000 customers signed a petition pledging support for the store. Despite the petition, it closed in July 2003.

Gabriel has lived in Urbana since 1957 and said she feels saddened by all the businesses that have left the area. She leaned on a shopping cart for balance as she walked in a chilling February wind from Florida House to the County Market, the last remaining grocery store in the district.

“There is nothing here,” Gabriel said.

The City’s Response

In response to the loss of businesses in the area, Urbana’s community development staff recently completed the Philo Road Business District Revitalization Action Plan, which identified goals and strategies to improve the area. Staff conducted surveys and open houses to get advice and ideas from community members, and also researched how other areas have dealt with the loss of big-box retailers. The Urbana City Council approved the plan on Feb. 7.

Urbana Economic Development Manager John Regetz said many other cities have failed to attract similar retail operations into an abandoned building. He explained that it is unlikely that a large retailer can use the buildings left behind by other large retailers because they find them unsuitable.

“The same type of retailers have evolved and large format retail has gone to ‘supercenters’ and now they’re ‘megacenters’ and they require massive volumes of customers to exist on very thin (profit) margins,” Regetz said. “So, to get that kind of volume of customers they want to have Interstate (highway) access.”

A new Wal-Mart Supercenter is planned in Urbana at the intersection of U.S. 150 and Route 130, near Interstate 74.

Although the buildings on Philo Road do not meet supercenter retailers’ needs, they could accommodate smaller, regional retailers, he said.

It is more likely, though, that the buildings would be converted for multiple users, which could include employment centers or institutional uses, such as government offices or schools, Regetz said.

Recently, an Illinois Fraternal Order of Police call center moved into part of the former Jewel store. The center is expected to employ about 200 people, according to Regetz.

Creating offices that provide jobs will draw traffic into the area and create demand for existing and new businesses for shopping and services, Regetz said.

The city also hopes to see buildings constructed on top of many empty parking lots, where the buildings would easily be visible from the street, Regetz said. Coffee and sandwich shops could serve as both business and entertainment in the area, and specialized retail stores are also ideal for the area, he said.

Even though the proposed Wal-Mart would be closer to Philo Road than Champaign or Savoy shopping areas, it would still be more than two miles from the heart of the Philo Road business district. Philo Road residents said they were excited to have the store locate in Urbana, but were disappointed that it would be a short bus ride away instead of a short walk.