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As Andersonville Chamber’s Director Ellen Shepard Plans Departure, Big Plans Are Shaping Her Future


Photo: bealocalist.org

There’s a certain comfort in knowing that one of the people who has helped Andersonville retain its small-business, local feel was, at least from 1985 to 2002, just as likely as anyone else in the neighborhood to be walking her dog, in her pajamas, on a Sunday morning, just down the street from her workplace.

But that’s part of Andersonville’s charm, that the executive director of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce could be drinking coffee at La Colombe right next to you, or that she could be picking up her dry cleaning at the exact same place you drop yours off at, too.

“When I took the job 16 years ago, I thought it would be interesting and rewarding to work in the community where I had lived for many years,” Ellen Shepard wrote to the Edgeville Buzz on Thursday. “I didn’t dream that supporting sustainable local communities would become my passion, that I’d end up on a national stage, and that our little neighborhood’s story would influence communities around the globe.”

Shepard is leaving the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, it was announced last week. Her last day will be in early March 2016. She plans to start her own consulting business, where she’ll be doing much of what she has loved doing in Andersonville but on a different scale. She said she’s deeply concerned about environmental sustainability and economic justice.

“With the consequences of climate change becoming undeniable, and with uprisings around the world and in our own city, it’s clear that our old ways of doing violence against each other and the planet can’t continue,” she said. “We need new systems. Andersonville has been a part of demonstrating the sustainable systems of the future: Localized, self-reliant, embracing diversity, community-centered. Places where neighbors know each other, support their local businesses, buy from their local farmers. I want to help build these kinds of communities elsewhere.”

Her new business, which she will announce in the next couple of months, will work to make an impact in communities with a high need and huge potential, like Detroit and Gary.

“I want to help build local business support and attraction, placemaking, community culture and pride, and environmental sustainability, like we’ve done here,” she said.

In those endeavors, she has plenty to pull from, much of it the result of a team effort, Shepard said.

“Walking down Clark Street in Andersonville fills me with pride and a sense of what ‘community’ really means,” she said. “For example, Andersonville’s historic architecture and beautiful streetscape (are) here because local architect and Andersonville resident Thom Greene championed it. The Swedish heritage is alive because Swedish American Museum founder (and former Svea owner) Kurt Mathaisson promoted it, and people like Kerstin Lane and Karin Moen Abercrombie from the Museum and Scott Martin from Simon’s Tavern continued to protect it. The local business owners in Andersonville support each other, and the residents support them, like no other community I’ve seen.”

Shepard said her main contribution as executive director was understanding that Andersonville’s locally owned businesses are critically important. If the neighborhood lost them, the entire neighborhood would decline, she said.

For instance, in about 2003, chain stores started getting interested in Andersonville, she said.

“Ann Christophersen from Women and Children First invited me to a meeting with a new national organization called BALLE: The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies,” Shepard said. “I ended up becoming deeply involved with BALLE. I served on their board of directors for 10 years and was chosen for the first class of BALLE Local Economies Fellows, a select group of leaders across North America who are working to build sustainable communities. I brought other cities’ ideas back to Chicago, and in turn, Andersonville inspired so many communities across the world.”

Nearly all of the businesses in Andersonville are independently owned by people who live in the community or nearby, she said. They’re in business not just for their financial bottom line, but also because this is their home. Being local means they’re donating to local charities, hiring only local employees, doing business with other local entrepreneurs, and spending their own profits back in the local economy. They’re engaged in and accountable to the community in a way that non-local businesses just aren’t, Shepard said.

That approach was studied more thoroughly in 2004’s commissioned Andersonville Study of Retail Economics, which showed that locally-owned, independent businesses keep much more money recirculating in the local economy than chain businesses do.

“The study made a big splash in national media,” Shepard said. “Dozens of cities from around the world have contacted me since then thanking us for the data and asking me how they can do what we have done here.

“We can see what happened in Chicago neighborhoods that didn’t champion local businesses: Chain stores moved in, the rents went up, and the commercial district lost its distinct character,” she said. “People won’t visit a neighborhood business district if they can find all the same stores at Water Tower or Old Orchard. Eventually, the chain stores move out too, and you’re left with empty storefronts and high rents.

“So when I walk down Clark Street, I get an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ feeling of knowing what could have happened had we not chosen a strategy of supporting local, independent businesses,” Shepard added.

Shepard no longer lives in Andersonville. She considers her current home to be close enough to allow her to walk to work but still far enough away to help her remain anonymous. Yet as someone who lived in the neighborhood from 1985 to 2002, she watched Andersonville change substantially.

Some of those changes were in the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce itself. What used to be a one-person office in a windowless room in the US Bank building is now a “small but mighty” six-person staff made up of additional organizations that also include the Andersonville Development Corp. and the Andersonville Special Service Area No. 22. There is also a volunteer board of directors that has worked hard to put on annual events like Midsommarfest and to add more programs like Andersonville Arts Weekend and Late Night Andersonville. The initial push to grow the Chamber and hire an additional staff person came in 2000, when state elected officials at the time, Harry Osterman and Carol Ronen, worked to provide “seed” money for the organization, Shepard said.

The Andersonville Development Corp., founded to take a long-term view of the neighborhood’s health, helps promote recycling, composting, bike corrals, public art, and placemaking, Shepard said. These are some of eco-Andersonville’s environmental initiatives.

Examples of placemaking are People Spots, “Andersonville 50” banners, and the “You Are Beautiful” campaign.

The Chamber also started Andersonville Special Service Area No. 22, which funds sidewalk sweeping, garbage emptying, snow plowing, streetscape repairs, and the Facade Rebate & Green Building Incentive programs.

“Through the SSA, we take care of all of (the placemaking), plus getting plants in the planters at the seating areas, maintaining the bricks in the sidewalks, painting the trash bins … everything to make Andersonville beautiful and give it a unique sense of place,” Shepard said.

Over the years, the Chamber added comprehensive neighborhood marketing that includes “a fantastic website and vibrant social media presence, our current slate of a dozen special events, and the Andersonville Farmers Market,” Shepard said. “We also added deep support for small business owners including workshops, networking, one-on-one assistance, connection to funding, and business attraction services for landlords.”

Midsommarfest has been crucial to the Chamber’s growth and its ability to support the community, Shepard said, adding that it’s not only a great festival but also a fundraiser for the non-profit Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, local public schools, and other non-profits. All of the profits from Midsommarfest go right back into the community, in the form of programs and services provided by the Andersonville Chamber and Andersonville Development Corp., and donations to schools and other non-profits, she said.

“If you love Andersonville, and you love Midsommarfest, it’s so important to donate at the entrance gate and have a beer from one of our beer booths,” she said. “And at City Made Fest, too, as that event is the main fundraiser for eco-Andersonville.”

“I love this community so much: The business owners, the businesses, the Swedes, the historic architecture, the Dala Horse, the farmers market,” she said. “I will miss being deeply ingrained in a place I know so well. I will also miss my staff and board, which are very much family to me.

But above all, Shepard wants the neighborhood to remain local.

“We know for sure that the locally owned, independent businesses keep this community vibrant,” she said. In the 12 years since the “Andersonville Study of Retail Economics” came out, dozens of communities, universities, and other research institutions have studied the impact of local businesses. Every study shows conclusively that communities with higher levels of locally owned businesses have more community wealth, more community engagement in civic activities, higher wages and benefits, higher rates of charitable giving, less commercial turnover, and they score better on all sorts of measures of well-being, she added.

“The 2016 City of Chicago budget is going to make operating a local business in Chicago extremely challenging,” Shepard said. “The $600 million property tax hike that’s getting implemented over the next five years is going to fall most heavily on businesses, because of Cook County’s crazy way of assessing commercial buildings. When people think it’s a good idea to raise business property taxes, they’re typically picturing Willis Tower. But it’s also the Hopleaf and Jameson Loves Danger and Women and Children First, and all the other neighborhood favorites. Andersonville’s small businesses are going to have a rough time.

“So please: Support local businesses with your dollars,” Shepard said. “Urge landlords to rent to local businesses. Urge our elected officials to adopt policies that support those businesses, including property tax relief and simplifying Chicago’s business permitting and licensing processes. Be a part of this great community.”

A search committee has been formed with members of the boards of the Andersonville Chamber and Andersonville Development Corp. to find a replacement for Shepard. The position will be formally announced and posted by the end of the year.

For more information on the Chamber, visit the website.

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