Rising Crime Scares Some Visitors to Chicago Destinations During Holiday Shopping Season


The recent surge in flash mob retail thefts and violent crime has hit North Michigan Avenue and other iconic Chicago destinations, deterring vacation shopping and tourism as the city tries to emerge from nearly two years of stasis. pandemic.

From retailers and restaurants to hotels, businesses are stepping up security and enlisting law enforcement assistance as visitors stay away alarmed by the confluence of organized crime and the seemingly random muggings plaguing even in public areas. formerly “safe” places like the Magnificent Mile.

“People are paying attention,” said Kimberly Bares, president and CEO of the Magnificent Mile Association, a private organization focused on promoting the shopping district along North Michigan Avenue. “If there is an incident or a concern about an incident, people choose not to come downtown. “

Chicago has grappled with the reality and perception of violence for a long time, from the days of Al Capone to the more recent image of the city as a center of gun violence. But that image has always been painted on a split screen, with the city’s sparkling downtown, lakefront, and shopping hotspots such as North Michigan Avenue seen as somehow isolated from criminal activity.

Some of these imaginary lines were crossed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A number of retail thefts have taken place along Michigan Avenue this holiday season, smashing windows and a sense of security at Nieman Marcus, Canada Goose, North Face and Burberry, among others.

CTA bus drivers are planning a protest march on Saturday after a driver was assaulted while arrested on North Michigan Avenue last weekend. Chicago the police also plan to increase patrols and enforce curfews in the wake of the wider violence in the city center, while a private security firm monitors the safety of CTA bus drivers.

Organized retail theft is on the rise nationwide, costing retailers an average of $ 700,000 per $ 1 billion in sales, according to the National Retail Federation, with Chicago ranking third behind Los Angeles and San Francisco for reported thefts.

The Chicago Police Department reported 11,865 thefts this year through Dec. 5, up 19% from last year. Thefts during the holiday shopping season are up 36% from a year ago, according to police data.

The rise in thefts, especially the coordinated flash mobs that have descended on shopping destinations from Michigan Avenue to Northbrook, have landed like a punch to retailers who are still struggling to recover from the ongoing pandemic.

“There is nowhere to be safe,” said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “It’s devastating.”

Store owners already facing labor shortages, supply chain issues and increased online competition are starting to elevate security to the top of their priority lists, Karr said, spending money. hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide to tackle the rise in retail theft.

As retailers invest more in security measures, there are limits to what they can do to tackle store-level crime, Karr said.

“We cannot turn our stores into armed camps,” Karr said. “We cannot lock everything under lock and key. Retail doesn’t work that way. It does not work for the consumer that way.

Karr said the primary responsibility lies with law enforcement, with whom the merchant association works to develop strategies to tackle organized theft at retail. He said the association would have ideas to share in the “not too distant” future.

The increasingly brazen thefts and muggings in retail are giving people more reason to stay home this holiday season, casting a curtain on a wider range of Chicago businesses aimed at consumers.

Michael Fassnacht, president and CEO of World Business Chicago and the city’s chief marketing officer, said in an email that the city is tackling the problem.

“Public safety is a top priority for Mayor (Lori) Lightfoot, and World Business Chicago is working with the mayor’s office and local law enforcement to address public safety concerns within the business community. “said Fassnacht. “The challenges we see are not a unique issue for Chicago and have not had a direct impact on our economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. “

Chicago’s restaurant industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, is already facing a potentially bleak winter, with thousands of restaurateurs on the about to close permanently without additional federal relief, according to Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

“There is no doubt that people who might come from the suburbs, or people who might be visiting our city, might be a little bit cautious about what’s going on with crime,” Toia said. “Crime and public safety are top concerns in Chicago restaurants, especially in our central business district. It’s just another problem restaurant owners and operators need to start addressing now.

Chicago hotels have also struggled during the pandemic, with occupancy falling from 74% in 2019 to 26% last year in the central business district, according to data from research firm STR. The industry appeared to be recovering, with occupancy expected to hit 42% this year, but the omicron variant and rising crime threaten to halt that advance.

Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, said Chicago’s hotel industry – both for convention and leisure travel – was losing business due to growing fear crime among travelers.

“Absolutely it is,” said Jacobson. “And this is something that we cannot as an industry or that we cannot afford as a city that this continues. “

Chicago hit 54% hotel occupancy in October, but lags behind Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Dallas as pandemic-era travel begins to increase. Only San Francisco and Washington, DC, had lower hotel occupancy rates than Chicago, Jacobson said.

Pleasure travel, which declines each year to Chicago during the winter, faces “declining demand” during the holiday season, while the decline in business travel has reduced occupancy rates in the middle. single-digit weekdays at some hotels, Jacobson.

Because conventions are planned in advance, the impact of increased crime may take five or six years to be fully calculated, Jacobson said.

“Where it hurts us on the convention side is for future nominations,” Jacobson said. “There is no way to quantify the number of groups that are not considering Chicago now, when they would have done otherwise if it had not been for this problem with the perception of crime. “

Chicago hotels are also stepping up security as the association meets with city and county officials to develop a broader strategy to reduce crime in the city, Jacobson said.

Sable at Navy Pier, a 223-room luxury hotel that opened at one of Chicago’s most popular tourist attractions in March, is facing occupancy issues. The hotel has soothed worried guests and bolstered its own security, though its remote peninsular location has helped isolate it from some of the criminal activity plaguing the city.

“We hear it all the time from visitors to our city,” said longtime hotelier Bob Habeeb, CEO of Maverick Hotels and Restaurants, which developed and operates Sable at Navy Pier. “They say, we hear about all these murders and shootings, and we’re scared. We are afraid to come there.

Habeeb, 60, said the hotel has achieved a relatively high occupancy rate of 70% during the summer months, but that activity is on the decline as winter arrives and some vacationers have fear of the safety of Chicago.

In addition to Navy Pier’s private security force, the hotel has additional measures in place to protect visitors and guests, Habeeb said.

“We have spent a lot more of our budget on security than we originally planned,” Habeeb said.

While the pandemic may recede, Habeeb said a reputation for crime could linger, hampering business and deterring travelers for years – even after the city has brought it under control. The remote location of the Sand can be a bright spot from an otherwise dark perspective.

“It’s a strange turn of things that our location has turned out to be a huge advantage for us,” Habeeb said. “Because the market that has remained strong is leisure, and we have a great leisure location. And people feel safe on the pier.

The Magnificent Mile also faced a rough road during the pandemic, with a Tribune analysis in April finding 28 storefronts vacant, or just over 25% of the avenue’s 110 businesses. In August, Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo became the last major retailer to leave, after Gap and Macy’s.

Bares said the increase in crime could discourage new tenants from moving to Michigan Avenue.

“It has the potential to influence investor decisions,” Bares said. “And if they have a choice between a location in the suburbs or in the city center, they may very well choose that location in the suburbs rather than in the city center.”

Beyond this holiday season, the District of North Michigan Avenue is taking action to improve safety and reduce crime in the New Year by forming a special service area, which will assess the additional property taxes starting Jan. 1, pending municipal council approval. The new tax district would raise an additional $ 742,033 per year, including $ 472,194 for “public health and safety programs.”

The measure, which is backed by the Magnificent Mile Association, has already earmarked some of the funds for increased security, Bares said.

“We have funds for the police on leave, to have new cameras installed on properties that currently don’t have one,” Bares said.

But getting crime on Michigan Avenue under control will require more than increased security from retailers, Bares said.

Bares said the 2016 decision of then-newly elected Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx to increase the charge limit for shoplifters for a felony from $ 300 to $ 1,000 prompted retail theft by reducing many trips to a crime. The solution, she said, is to reverse this law.

“We would like to see the Cook County state attorney’s office lower the limit on felony prosecution,” Bares said. “I think that sends a message.”

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