Economic development on the move in McHenry

McHENRY – The phone is ringing more often, McHenry officials said.

The city is looking to fill some of its empty storefronts, in particular the former Walmart and Sears sites, both along the city’s Route 31 corridor, Deputy City Administrator Doug Martin said.

“Not to downgrade all the other vacant spaces that we have, but those are by far the largest,” he said. “They do create this physical hole along that corridor. They’re very noticeable. Those are obviously priorities, but those are also the hardest to fill.”

Part of Martin’s job is building relationships with retailer site finders and brokers and pitching specific sites in the city.

Part of that is through fielding calls that come into the city – and those have been increasing over the past several years, he said – and by going to conferences.

“We’re selling McHenry,” Martin said. “We’re selling our brand, heart of the Fox River. Pools, health care, housing, everything, all quality-of-life issues.”

The city has had some success with getting a developer to come in and split some of the big-box stores into smaller spaces, Martin said.

Deputy City Administrator Bill Hobson pointed to the former Dominick’s site – which was split up and houses Goodwill and Hobby Lobby – and the former Wickes store – which is now Jo-Ann Fabrics and Ross Dress for Less.

One of the first projects after the downtown tax increment financing district was formed in 2002 was a similar project, Martin said. A trucking warehouse was converted into the strip mall that now holds Verlo Mattress Factory Store and RadioShack.

Despite the issues that can arise when a megastore moves out – an especially touchy subject when it comes to Walmart’s move a little more than a mile north to Johnsburg where it built a brand-new store – city officials aren’t too concerned about the trend continuing.

There are a few spots in town where these stores could be built, City Administrator Derik Morefield said, but he doesn’t see that happening in the near future.

“Plus, it’s hard – and again, not just McHenry, but in general – to pass up a potential new retailer that’s going to bring in $300,000 a year in sales tax,” he said.

Even if city officials wanted to put up roadblocks, their options are limited, Morefield said. They can ask for more and make the process more difficult, but if the property is already zoned commercial, there isn’t much that can be done.

There’s also limitations on what the city can do to bring in businesses.

“Any retailer is going to go where their demand is,” Martin said. “That usually involves where the traffic is and the people are.”

If McHenry doesn’t meet those numbers, no financial incentive is going to make the difference, Morefield said. Looking forward, Morefield said he thinks McHenry has the demographics to bring development.

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