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No small (business) feat: Uptick appears to be under way in Joliet

Jun 21, 2013
In The News

Among the things he saw Friday in downtown Joliet, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster noticed in particular the new Joliet Junior College building going up.

The same thing happened in downtown Aurora, Foster said during a walking tour in Joliet. When Waubonsee Community College and its students arrived in downtown Aurora, it made a difference.

“It led to a huge increase in foot traffic. A lot of restaurants started springing up,” said Foster, D-Naperville.

Foster’s visits with business people were his way of marking National Small Business Day. Business owners also can fill out a survey on Foster’s congressional website to weigh in with him.

More foot traffic would be nice for downtown Joliet restaurants, many of which have been iffy propositions over the years.

Chicken-n-Spice, in business since 1979, is the exception. But even Pat Reimer, part of the family who run Chicken-n-Spice, said that getting people downtown is a challenge.

“I think one of the biggest problems, going back a lot of years in downtown Joliet, is a lot of people, especially older people, are nervous about coming down here,” Reimer said.

The crime and prostitiution problems of decades ago have been cleaned, Reimer said. But the reputation of trouble still lingers.

“I tell people it’s as safe as being in your mother’s womb,” Reimer said with a laugh. And, she said, “Once we get them down here, we usually get them back.”

Foster found a lot of variety during his downtown walk-around. He also visited the Route 66 Diner, the Jitters coffee shop, Moore Glass, and the Friends of Community Art studios.

The stop at Route 66 Diner was nostalgic, he said. But not because of the Route 66 theme. It was a meeting spot during his congressional campaign, and Foster’s name is one of the first in a guest book that features an unexpectedly global assortment of entries.

“This is amazing,” Foster said while looking through the book. “England! Somerset, England!”

Indeed, there were entries from Germany and Norway, too, since the restaurant took on the Route 66 name to latch onto the worldwide interest in the historic highway route that runs through downtown.

Moore Glass is on the route, too. Not that that matters for a business that owner Sue Moore said is doing very well in its 40th anniversary year.

The business provides glass for commercial and residential construction, and for automobiles, too. Not a retailer, it does not depend on foot traffic and stoppers-by.

“We’re very fortunate that we have had loyal customers who have stayed with us,” Moore said.

Foster, however, said the Moore Glass story does sound hopeful for the larger economy beyond downtown Joliet.

“I was very encouraged to hear that Moore Glass is seeing a real uptick with business and construction, which saw a real downturn during the recession,” he said.

Foster was a small-business owner himself. He started Electronic Theater Controls at age 19 with his brother. The business today supplies most of the theater lights used in the United States, Foster said, and employs 650 people.

But he can remember back in the day when the company was starting, and he faced the problems that small businesses typically encounter.

“Back at the beginning,” he said, “the question often was which one of the vendors would we not pay this month. That’s often the life of a small-business person.”

While Foster believes the U.S. economy is getting better, he acknowledged that may not be evident to many small-business owners.

“Local small businesses,” he said, “are always at the bottom of the recovery.”