May 16, 2012 | 07:55 AMGENOA CITY — John Wrzeszcz was elected village president more than a year ago. There hasn't been a thriving downtown business climate in Genoa City in around 50 years.
But during a May 3 interview at Genoa City Village Hall, Wrzeszcz said he thought he could bring new businesses into the community within his first six months on the job.
Of course, that didn't happen. Now, aside from a plan to hand out refrigerator magnets and possibly placing one or more signs indicating where Genoa City is on Highway 12, he and other officials are working to do what seems to be impossible — bring businesses into the village.
"It's been very depressing," Wrzeszcz said. "This is a lot harder of a position than I thought it would be, but it's not done yet."
Retail businesses seem to be closing, proposals appear to get scrapped faster than new businesses are opening. Businesses Wrzeszcz talked about with hope last fall — including Spotlight Coffee, Tea and Ice Cream Co. — have shut their doors for good. Last year also saw the closure of Keller's, a well-known family-style restaurant. Then there's the case of the former Johnny B's building off Freeman Street, which was bought by a bank in Melrose Park Ill., and Wrzeszcz said "people have been interested in buying the place but the bank won't answer their calls."
He said bringing in new business "was his thing" during the April 2011 election campaign.
"I wanted to get people to spend money in Genoa City," Wrzeszcz said, adding the Village Board even established a business tax incentive program. "But they didn't come and they didn't even ask for that (incentive)."
Being village president is a new endeavor for the 69-year-old Wrzeszcz, a man with a history of public service, including 35 years as the village's public works superintendent.
"My whole life in community service really has been with the department of public works," Wrzeszcz said. "We would fix things, we cleaned the streets, plowed snow — that stuff I know how to do. This, this is new to me. But I'm learning."
The most important lesson so far?
"Things don't happen overnight," Wrzeszcz said. "But don't give up."
Half a century ago…
There was a time when numerous businesses called Genoa City home — including a co-op, three gas stations, a furniture shop, a drug store, a shoe store, grocery stores, an opera house, a movie theater. Coincidentally, that also was the time when Highway 12 ran directly through the village's downtown sector.
Then, in the 1960s, the state Department of Transportation rerouted the highway to where it is today — out of downtown.
"As traffic ceased, one by one, the businesses went out," Wrzeszcz said.
He said Genoa City is now a bedroom community. No one comes through downtown anymore, he said, and most people who live in the village work in Illinois.
"Even if somebody opened up a Dunkin' Donuts down here, the people on their way to work would stop and patronize the place," Wrzeszcz said.
But that's the rub. There is no business like Dunkin' Donuts in Genoa City, so the people who would spend money there don't go into the village. As such, the if-you-build-it-they-will-come philosophy has yet to be tested in Genoa City when it comes to retail businesses.
Wrzeszcz dropped some names of several Genoa City businesses, most of them restaurants or taverns, which remain open. He said "we've got a pretty good industrial park on Elizabeth Lane" and a plastic recycling plant recently opened near the old co-op on Freeman Street.
"But it's really critical that we get more businesses here, now more than ever," Wrzeszcz said.
Last fall, Wrzeszcz sounded hopeful that two assisted living facility projects would spark an interest around the area of Highway 12 and Elizabeth Lane. He speculated that Walgreen's — which once expressed an interest in building a store on two sites near Highway 12 and South Road — may have renewed their interest in Genoa City if these assisted living projects moved forward.
However, on May 3, Wrzeszcz said the assisted living projects are off the table. One of these projects was going to cost an estimated $20 million and would have been built at the former rest area site off Highway 12.
"That was going to be a really large project, but I received word a couple weeks ago that the funding didn't go through," he said. "That project is done."
So is the smaller-scale assisted living proposal off Elizabeth Lane. Wrzeszcz said that facility would have been in the Elizabeth Lane industrial park. That's why the owners of some businesses in that area opposed it, he said.
Nevertheless, the owners of the former Highway 12 rest area property contacted Wrzeszcz and are still looking to build a project on that site.
"They have e-mailed us saying not to despair," he said. "We've just got to wait and see what happens in the next couple months."
Hope along the highway
But not all is doom and gloom in Genoa City.
According to Wrzeszcz, David Laurine — the owner of property south of South Road, east of Highway 12 — is still working on a "welcome center" proposal which involves a gas station, an ice cream parlor and other small shops on that site.
"He's actually moving dirt now, so that is a good sign," Wrzeszcz said. "We as a village will offer any help we can."
He holds a lot of stock in developing businesses in that area.
"I still maintain that if you can just get one thing at South Road and 12, it will go from there," Wrzeszcz said.
To help grease the wheels of business in Genoa City, the Village Board created a business tax incentive program. Essentially, if a business qualifies, its owners will receive 100 percent of the village's portion of the property tax rebated for the first three years of operation. After that, the next three years, the rebate is 50 percent of the village property tax bill.
But how easy is it to establish a business in Genoa City?
Wrzeszcz, who also is chairman of the Village Planning Commission, said polices and procedures were put into place in the past "because communities everywhere were growing too fast" and couldn't keep up.
One way to slow things down was to tack impact fees onto developers.
"But now that the economy has taken a dump, some of these (fees) are unrealistic now — at least I think they are," Wrzeszcz said.
However, he offered this bit of encouragement to prospective developers.
"People are going to have to come to the Planning Commission and ask to have some of these fees waived … or stalled," Wrzeszcz said. "Ask what we can do for you."