When Lincoln Mall closed at the end of last year, it marked the end of an era for this part of the south suburbs. My love affair with Lincoln Mall started over 30 years ago, when my wife and I went shopping for baby clothes for my firstborn. We lived in Chicago at the time and welcomed the opportunity to find a place with an abundance of shopping with free and easy parking. When we moved to the south suburbs over 20 years ago, we considered proximity to Lincoln Mall and the rich variety of retail lining Lincoln Highway a major plus. Interestingly, as our move signified a steady demographic shift in the area, we watched other changes particularly during the mid to late 90s. Retail was shifting westward towards Orland Park and Tinley Park.
As the far south suburbs of Matteson, Olympia Fields, Richton Park, and Park Forest became more Black and Hispanic, retail development followed the movement of former residents, primarily White, into suburbs further west. An aggressive development environment in Orland Park eclipses the efforts of many of its surrounding neighbors. While it seems reasonable that businesses will “follow the dollars,” that appears to not be the whole story.
After relocating and becoming a south suburban resident in 1994, I watched some of the erosion of the retail sector. There were stores lost because of major bankruptcies — Montgomery Wards, Builders Square, Handy Andy, etc. The big empty spaces were slow to lease out again. Without bigger stores to draw traffic, medium and small shops struggle to survive. However, some well known and seemingly profitable stores were leaving as well.
When we decided to locate our bookstore in the recuperating Lincoln Mall we were encouraged by our market research. Despite the image of a higher income population shifting to the west, the incoming residents, particularly in Matteson, were measured to be higher educated with higher incomes, and purchasing more expensive housing than the people who left. From 1990 to 2000, all of those indices went up. Why was retail moving?
In May 2012, the communities of Olympia Fields, Matteson, Richton Park and Park Forest published a study that examined the phenomenon described as “retail redlining” and determined its existence and effect on their economic development efforts.
Making a hard case for retail redlining is difficult, because what looks like a “sound business decision” can be cloaked in misleading perceptions about a community. The study shows that evidence exists in some areas and is inconclusive in others. It did agree that more is needed to be done by the communities to change perceptions. The plan also outlined an action plan for engaging and retaining existing businesses, among other things.
Despite the knowledge this study brings, and the ongoing attempts to change the current state, the retail environment still looks dismal. What I found missing from the report was how to convince the community of the necessity of building interest in the role of consumers to promote local business successes. It’s been over three years since this study was published, and I don’t feel that public sentiment has been impacted much at all. Residents need to feel good about keeping their dollars local. Personally, I feel that an increased focus on supporting entrepreneurship, and finding ways to continually support locally-owned businesses, will create an atmosphere of growth, creativity, and excitement. That’s what we need.