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Wheaton takes proactive steps toward downtown rejuvenation

Kilwin's Chocolates & Fudge, which opened its Wheaton location in April, is heralded as the type of large tenant looking to expand its market that is an ideal fit for to the city's downtown area.
Kilwin's Chocolates & Fudge, which opened its Wheaton location in April, is heralded as the type of large tenant looking to expand its market that is an ideal fit for to the city's downtown area.

WHEATON – Downtown Wheaton has been a busy place in recent months.

Kilwin’s Chocolates & Fudge and Moore Toys & Gadgets have filled two of Front Street’s most notable vacancies. Joan’s Place, PampleMousse Bakery, Andrew’s Garden and Prairie Path Books all have moved in since late 2013, bringing new activity to the area.

But a number of properties remain vacant.

“It’s a matter of getting out and doing some cold calling, finding existing businesses that are in the western suburbs,” said Downtown Wheaton Association Executive Director Paula Barrington. “We just have to plant the seed that there is an opportunity to open a second or third location in a viable, vibrant community.”

The former locations of Paper House, Knippen’s Shoes and Yoyo Frozen Yogurt all are empty and have been for some time. Barrington said the owner of Tate’s Ice Cream, 109 E. Front St., did not open for the 2014 season and is seeking a buyer for the store.

There also are vacancies at 130 W. Liberty Drive, 226 W. Front St., 130 W. Willow St. and 111, 113 and 124 N. Main St.

Barrington said the Downtown Wheaton Association and the city are contacting regional and local businesses to fill the spaces and offering a number of grants to incentivize the establishment of new locations. The association also posts all vacancies on its website, she said.

Additionally, Barrington said the city is involved with online resource LoopNet, which helps connect businesses to open real estate.

She pointed to Kilwin’s new location as the type of development spurred by proactive work.

“I feel that having a Kilwin’s here in downtown Wheaton has certainly served as a draw and attraction,” she said. “Frankly, there aren’t many other ones in the Chicago area.”

Other upcoming openings include NEXT Yoga and Armand’s Pizzeria, both at 120 E. Liberty Drive, in late June; a new home interior shop, P.S. Flowers, at 125 W. Front St. in early August; and a Subway at 105 E. Front St. this summer.

The downtown could also see an influx of alcohol with Dry City Brew Works opening later this year and the owners of Geneva Ale House signing a lease at 108 N. Hale St., Barrington said.

Wheaton Mayor Mike Gresk said the turnover and slow occupancy is a natural part of the business cycle.

“Everything has a shelf life,” he said. “It is a constant challenge, if not struggle, to replace that stock of stores. There are businesses that have lasted 20, 30, 40 years, but even they have a shelf life.”

Gresk said he and other city officials believe Wheaton is taking steps to make the downtown area more appealing to future tenants, in particular with the Downtown Strategic Plan and Streetscape Plan.

During a June 9 City Council meeting, members directed staff to begin work prioritizing and planning a number of items in the estimated $64 million downtown revamp.

“I think it will entice people looking to start up a business as the economy recovers,” he said. “A vibrant downtown will draw people and business. ... We are headed the right way.”

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