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Shop owners, officials weigh in on state of the business community

WHEATON – A decade and a half ago, Donna Hessick was selling crepes out of a cart at the Wheaton French Market.

Today, she owns Suzette’s Creperie off Front Street. She has taken over three storefronts and established a consistent presence in downtown Wheaton. She said the supportive community in the area made the process of opening a business a little easier.

“The nice thing about Wheaton is that we don’t have many national chains,” Hessick said. “There’s a great camaraderie among the businesses here.”

She said that early on, she often would call other restaurants for advice and rarely was turned away.

Still, there are 26 storefronts or properties for sale or rental in Wheaton, including eight in the downtown area, according to the city website and the Downtown Wheaton Association.

Paula Barrington, the executive director of the Downtown Wheaton Association, said she believes Wheaton still is a good place to open a business.

“I think that buyers and new businesses are seeing a lot of viability in the area,” she said. “They are ready to get in while they can.”

Hessick, also a DWA member, agrees, adding the city was helpful and supportive during the process of opening the business and the subsequent 13 years of ownership.

Jim Kozik, Wheaton’s director of planning and development, said the city is trying several things to draw businesses to Wheaton, particularly downtown. These include a slew of different grants the city awards to businesses, some of which total as much as $10,000.

“Sometimes it is difficult to start a business from scratch,” Kozik said. “We’re invested in trying to help them succeed. Sometimes that extra money can be the difference.”

Hessick said she has taken advantage of some grants the city has offered.

Kozik said the vacancies downtown are magnified in the public eye because it is such a small area and people want to see a full and bustling downtown. Several businesses recently have opened or are in the process of opening, he noted.

Bonnie Rae is the co-owner of Stork’s Cradle, a downtown Wheaton store closing at the end of the month to focus on online retail. Rae said while her business isn’t closing because of poor performance, the shop always had to fight for foot traffic.

“If you don’t work hard to get foot traffic in, it’s just not going to work,” she said. “There’s not a lot here, but you can generate it.”

Hessick said her background in marketing helped her cultivate traffic, but her history at the French Market provided her with a clientele base before she opened.

“I encourage people to give their ideas a shot at something like the French Market,” she said. “It gives them a chance to practice telling people what you’re all about. You have to put yourself out there.”

Kozik said the area will improve with the eventual implementation of downtown improvement plans, and said the city wants to recruit locally. Kozik said that the city and other agencies try to create networking events and make connections.

But there’s only so much it can do beyond that, he said. The rest comes down to supporting local businesses.

“Before you start a shopping expedition, ask yourself if there is anywhere in your backyard you can go instead of the big chains,” Barrington said.

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