In brief, describe the mission of your company.
Uptown United and Business Partners, The Chamber for Uptown are partner organizations that share a mission to build a strong, unified business environment; facilitate economic development; and strengthen community—all to nurture a diverse, vibrant, thriving, and strong Uptown. Uptown’s business association since 1923, Business Partners, The Chamber for Uptown is one of Chicago’s oldest Chambers of Commerce. While our focus is business development and promotion, we also recognize the cultural richness and diversity of our community to help make all of Uptown thrive. Uptown United assists local businesses, investors, and community organizations, helping stimulate economic development to strengthen the community’s economic base, and address broad issues pertaining to quality of life for Uptown’s diverse population. Uptown United is the service provider for the Uptown’s Special Service Area (SSA #34).
What services do you currently offer entrepreneurs to grow and scale their businesses?
Our organization is a great first stop for budding entrepreneurs or business who need some help (or just a boost).
Connection:Our primary service is connection. We connect business owners with other local business owners and resource partners (such as SCORE, Somercor, Women’s Business Development Center, Accion, and many more). We don’t provide everything a small business would need, but we probably know someone who can help with just about anything. We connect businesses through a variety of methods, from one-on-one introductions, to monthly networking events. Our networking events range from large multi-organization events, to sector-based roundtable discussions, to events focused on specific audiences like our successful Women’s Networking series. We always encourage business owners to come to us first, and we can connect them with the right partner to help their business grow.
Promotion: In Chicago, many neighborhood business associations and economic development organizations serve as de-facto tourism agencies. We encourage both Uptown residents and visitors to come to our neighborhood to experience all it has to offer. From the historic Uptown entertainment district, to the vast lakefront, and the “Asia on Argyle” district, Uptown has been a destination for more than a century. We promote the neighborhood through events that draw more than 75,000 people each year. These events include the Argyle Night Market, Taste of Uptown, Toast of Uptown, the Winter Walk on Wilson, and many more. We produce a printed Uptown neighborhood guide each year, which is distributed to local residents, as well as to downtown hotels. Finally, we engage heavily in digital media: through our website, social media, and email newsletters. With everyone so connected these days, we’ve had huge success with our email newsletters and social media—especially Instagram—as a way to help people know what’s up in Uptown.
Support: In addition to connecting businesses and promoting businesses, we provide direct services to support local businesses and help them grow. We offer financial support through our Curb Appeal Rebate program, Security Rebate Program, and First-Time Sidewalk Café rebate program. All three of these rebate programs help storefront businesses offset costs of improvements to their business, and this program is funded through the Uptown Special Service Area. As a designated Neighborhood Business Development Center (NBDC) for the City of Chicago, we act as the City’s arm in Uptown. In this capacity, we spend time helping businesses navigate city permitting and licensing processes, updating businesses on changes to city policies, and informing businesses of City resources and programs. Our team spends time helping start-up businesses find office or retail space in Uptown. As the CTA prepares to spend more than $2 billion on the Red-Purple Modernization Project, we’re helping businesses prepare for a major construction project that may impact them for the next 4-5 years. About one quarter of our members are nonprofit organizations, which employ more than 5,000 people in Uptown. As a major economic driver of our community, we spend significant time supporting these organizations and their work through one-on-one connections and technical assistance.
Why Chicago? Can you expand on why Chicago is a great city to support small businesses?
Uptown is a great community for small businesses—we have tremendous accessibility to downtown via Lake Shore Drive and the CTA’s Red Line. Our community has tremendous diversity, which makes it a place where all are welcome to open a business. Chicago on the whole is a great place for businesses because of its location and our relative affordability compared with other major cities in the nation.
Why do you think it is important to expand your reach to more businesses owned by women, veterans and minorities?
It’s vital—Uptown prides itself or our diversity. While I haven’t officially crunched the numbers, I would guess that a vast majority of Uptown’s businesses are owned by women, minorities, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals. Many of our local business owners are immigrants and/or refugees, and these businesses are what make our community thrive and what makes us unique. It’s also important to recognize the needs of business owners with different backgrounds, as they might be different depending on their personal history.
In your opinion, what are the immediate and long term challenges for entrepreneurs that you see? Can you provide an example based on your experience?
Staffing: Many small business owners—especially restaurant and retail businesses—have a hard time finding and keeping great staff.
Property Taxes: Property taxes especially hit small business owners hard. With tax increases and reassessments, many business owners are struggling to keep up with the costs of owning or renting their properties. We’re hearing this become a problem more and more.
Local Construction Projects: While renovations of the CTA’s Red Line are welcome, as they will make our public transportation accessible to everyone, faster, and more reliable, this construction will be a burden for local businesses. We’re working hard to make sure that the negative impact is minimal.
The State of Retail: The retail and restaurant sectors are rapidly changing and evolving. With increasing occupancy costs, challenges with staff, and competition with online retailers, traditional retailers are having challenges.
Succession Planning: We’re lucky to have many longstanding businesses in Uptown. Many of our small business owners have been around for decades. However, this means that some of these folks are nearing retirement age. Most small business owners haven’t thought about who will run their business when they retire or what that transition will look like.
Navigating the Digital Realm: Many small business owners where many hats, and knowing how to best promote your business, sell your products, and secure your data is a challenge.
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