After years of planning, Ravinia district may see action
Plans to improve the Ravinia business district, first conceived almost 20 years ago, are at a crossroads as Highland Park officials weigh the benefit of spending millions on a district that produces relatively little revenue for the city.
For about $7.6 million, the city could implement long-discussed streetscaping and infrastructure improvements to the Ravinia business district, a quiet stretch along Roger Williams Avenue that has for years existed somewhat in the shadows of the popular Ravinia Festival.
For about a million dollars less, there’s a scaled-back proposal that would still accomplish most of the work deemed important.
But according to recent data presented to the City Council, the Ravinia district only produces about 3 percent of Highland Park’s sales tax revenue — or roughly $385,000.
Councilman Alyssa Knobel said she experienced some “reverse sticker shock” upon hearing that.
“If you do all this, will it come?” Knobel said in a recent interview. “Would we be cannibalizing other districts to get there?”
Knobel hopes to see a more modest proposal one that would not require a bond issue, as part of a broader discussion on improvements for Highland Park’s nine business districts.
Meanwhile, the City Council has indicated a willingness to move forward with “key signage” for the district — banners and other types of signs that would help draw people in from Green Bay Road. Though a recent estimate given to the Council ranged up to almost $600,000, a cheaper proposal will be presented when the Council discusses its budget in September, said Nikki Larson, Highland Park’s finance director.
That’s a good start, said Carolyn Cerf, president of the Ravinia Neighbors Association. After so many years of planning, it’s time to act.
“You do have to consider the needs of all the business districts,” said Cerf, a longtime Ravinia resident. “But I don’t think that’s a reason to not move forward with the incremental signage.”
Sitting in the Baker Boys bakery on St. Johns Avenue, Cerf and Doug Purington, publicity director for the Ravinia Neighbors Association, recalled years of planning.
“There’s a long history of process,” Cerf said. “It’s created a reasonable expectation of moving forward.”
In 1994, a Ravinia Strategic Plan was created by a commission comprising Ravinia residents and business owners. It outlined needed infrastructure and streetscaping improvements — none of which were ever implemented.
In 2005, a tax-increment financing district, commonly known as a TIF, was created to encourage business growth and for infrastructure improvements. A TIF district allows a municipality to capture new property revenue above a baseline of assessed value.
So far, the Ravinia TIF hasn’t performed as hoped because of recent declines in property value compounded by the recession. Its balance is about $873,000; it accumulates roughly $170,000 a year, Larson said.
The city’s spent about $162,000 on planning in recent years, she said, including a market study, utility study and a streetscape design plan.
All of that planning — guided by the Ravinia District Advisory Committee — has provided “a menu of options,” including landscaping, lighting, signage and underground infrastructure improvements, said Barbara Cates, the city planner who has been closely involved with the project. But no money has yet been allocated.
“A lot of people think Ravinia is the Ravinia Festival and maybe overlook the district,” Cates said. “We want people to think of the district as its own entity and really a complement to the festival.”
How to pay for it is another question. Using the smaller of the two proposals recently presented to the City Council, the $6.5 million plan, it was projected that the TIF might pay for half of that, Larson said. The TIF is projected to garner $2.95 million by its expiration in 2029.
The City Council could also opt for a bond issue in 2015 or beyond. But there are other more immediate priorities in the capital improvement plan, like the paying off the debt on Highland Park’s water treatment plant and the relocation of the Ravinia fire station, Knobel said. There are also requests for improvement in other business districts.
“It’s time to take a more pragmatic approach and review spending for all of the business districts,” said Knobel, who has been closely involved with the Ravinia advisory committee. “What are we getting from all these plans? We have more plans than ever before.”
One possibility would be to move forward with signs — using money from the TIF — and to use additional funds from a proposed special service area to help market the district, she said. The City Council will vote Monday on whether to create the special service area for Ravinia.
Could Ravinia contribute significantly more sales tax revenue with better streetscaping and infrastructure?
“That’s hard to predict without knowing what improvements will be made,” Larson said.
For Ravinia business owners, the best place to start is at the beginning.
“Honestly, we’re so busy, we get lost in what’s happening with all that,” said Jordan Wrappaport, co-owner of the Baker Boys Bakery on St. Johns Avenue. “But I’m for anything that beautifies the district and brings people in.”
Wrappaport said he used to keep his bakery open late for Ravinia Festival customers, but they rarely ever trickled in. More signage could help define the business district’s identity, he said.
“It is unusual how many people from Highland Park don’t know we exist,” he said.
Michelle Burden, co-owner of SoShee Boutique on Roger Williams Avenue, said she considered Ravinia to be “a little gem,” waiting for more customers to light upon it. As for the years of planning, she said she’s confident they won’t be for nothing.
“It’s not something that can just happen overnight,” Burden said. “If you rush it, it’s not going to be successful.”