JOLIET – Bill Naal Jr. can list the names of bygone businesses that have left empty buildings behind on Republic Avenue – Grant’s Appliances, Ace Hardware Lawn & Vac and Joliet Paints, to name just a few.
“This street used to really be happening in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” Naal said. “In the 2000s is when people started moving out.”
Like a lot of places, Republic Avenue lost some business in the recession. And those businesses haven’t moved back.
The city of Joliet hopes to motivate redevelopment of Republic Avenue and other areas near Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center by offering tax breaks for redevelopment.
The proposed tax increment financing district would allow property tax increases that occur with new construction or building renovations to be used to offset the cost of development.
“It would help,” Naal said. “Given that things are slow right now, it would give you some funds that otherwise are not available.”
Naal Plumbing and Heating Co. was one of the first businesses on Republic Avenue when it opened in the late 1960s. Naal said the business, started by his father, had been the site of a batching plant used by the general contractor that built Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center in what was then an undeveloped area of Joliet.
Others followed, creating a unique blend of industry, offices, restaurants and retail businesses on Republic Avenue.
“When we were busy, we could get everything we needed right on this street,” Naal said.
The city hopes to encourage development that will fill vacancies, reinvigorate aging properties and attract new businesses.
At stake is the future of an area that is not only one of the city’s major business districts, but also a destination point that shapes the image of Joliet.
Dr. Theodore Kanellakes, a retired allergist who had an office in the St. Joseph’s medical district for 30 years, points out that for many people the hospital neighborhood is their first impression of Joliet.
“They get at least 100 [patient] transfers a month into St. Joe’s. Their loved ones come to visit,” Kanellakes said.
Kanellakes traces a visitor’s drive off Interstate 80 onto Larkin Avenue to Jefferson Street and to the hospital as an area in need of upgrades for the sake of Joliet’s image.
City Hall, too, has targeted the same area for a code enforcement program aimed at getting business cooperation in cleanup and property improvements aimed at polishing up the route’s curbside appeal.
The program, combined with the proposed TIF district, pleases Kanellakes, who along with hospital representatives first sought city cooperation a few years ago.
TIF history and boundaries
In his first State of the City speech in 2012, former Mayor Thomas Giarrante talked about a medical business district surrounding the hospital but described it as something on his “wish list.” The city began work on a TIF district, but it was never formally proposed.
After Bob O’Dekirk was elected mayor in April 2015, Kanellakes thought it was worth another try. He and hospital representatives met in October with O’Dekirk and other city officials.
“We again repeated our concerns and said something has to be done,” Kanellakes said. “I have to give O’Dekirk credit. He listened.”
In his first State of the City speech in late January, O’Dekirk said, “In 2016, I would like to see the city make a bigger commitment to St. Joseph’s hospital.”
The city announced the TIF plan the next week.
O’Dekirk said he and other city officials see the TIF district as important for the future of Joliet. He also noted the importance of avoiding a repeat of Silver Cross Hospital’s exit from Joliet’s east side to a new location in New Lenox.
“The hospital is the single biggest employer in Joliet,” O’Dekirk said. “Especially with what happened with Silver Cross, I think it’s imperative that we work with St. Joe’s.”
The proposed TIF district map as it is currently drawn runs west of the hospital, taking in property that lines Springfield and Republic avenues. It goes from Glenwood Avenue to Jefferson Street. It also takes in a block of the north side Jefferson Street that runs east of Springfield.
Kanellakes has asked the city to expand the proposed TIF district to the east of the hospital, taking in the medical building that he owns, as well as others along Hammes Avenue that have seen more vacancies in recent years.
Owners of vacant office space around the hospital face two challenges, Kanellakes said. Changes in health care have led to consolidation and fewer individual doctors opening new offices. And, changes in the neighborhood have made it less appealing than when Kanellakes opened on Hammes in 1982.
“You don’t want these things vacant,” Kanellakes said. “It’s not good. It’s blighted. The hospital doesn’t want them vacant either.”
St. Joe’s and neighbors
The hospital has been a stabilizing force in the neighborhood, having launched a $130 million expansion program in 2004 that included construction of the eight-story bed tower that changed the front entrance to Springfield Avenue.
Presence currently is investing $2.3 million in the hospital, including renovations of the triage area in the emergency department and expansion of the neuro intensive care unit.
The hospital employees 2,400 workers, and another 200 work next door at the Presence Villa Franciscan nursing home.
Presence has not said much about the TIF district or its plans in Joliet.
But Presence did issue a statement in early February noting that the Joliet medical center is “a destination hospital which receives nearly 1,000 transfer patients annually from other hospitals. The enhancement of the area surrounding Saint Joe’s, and the West Side, is vital to the experience of our patients and their families, our associates, and is likewise important to our neighboring businesses.”
One of those neighboring businesses is Future Diagnostics Group on Republic Avenue. The company moved into a former manufacturing building 14 years ago.
Future Diagnostics Group remodeled the building. Its unique parking lot is lined with solar panels that generate energy that is used in the building. The group provides outpatient diagnostic services for patients as far away as Chicago and Kankakee.
Director Lori Russ agreed the area needs improvements.
“If I’m taking a walk down the street, the sidewalks are in need of repair,” she said. “Some of the bushes are overgrown. It would be nice to have the city take care of some of those things.”
Others said the city needs to improve street lighting in the area.
Russ called the TIF proposal “a great thing.”
“The street is getting better over the last few years,” Russ said. “But I think with rehab, it would be nice to have things a little fresher.”
• Feb. 16: Joliet City Council approved a contract with SB Friedman to develop the TIF plan.
• April-May: SB Friedman expects to complete study determining what property is eligible for incentives, redevelopment plans, and impact on local governments that would forgo property taxes used for development.
• May-August: Public approval process, which includes notifications to property owners, taxing agencies, public hearings, and final vote on whether to move ahead with TIF district.