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Pawnshop proposed for vacant building

by JASON PORTERFIELD
4-25-12

A pawnshop has been proposed for a long-vacant storefront in the 5400 block of West Belmont Avenue.

The EZ Pawn chain is seeking to open a shop in the former Smithe and Shanahan furniture store, 5454 W. Belmont Ave, which has been vacant since 2007. The national pawnshop chain currently has eight locations in the city, including stores at 3711 W. Fullerton Ave. and at 2138 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Alderman Timothy Cullerton (38th) said that the single-story 9,452-square-foot building is owned by real estate attorney James Banks. Banks is the nephew of former 36th Ward alderman William Banks.

Cullerton said that James Banks contacted his office in March to tell him that the pawnshop chain was interested in leasing the space. "My involvement was that I asked them to present their proposal to the (Belmont-Central Chamber of Commerce) and told them that if the chamber came back with a favorable recommendation, then I wouldn't oppose it," Cullerton said. "This particular storefront has been an eyesore for some time."

Cullerton said that the company will have to obtain a special use from the Zoning Board of Appeals in order to open a pawnshop at the location and that he would write a letter to the board recommending the special use be granted based on feedback from the chamber.
"Pawnshops, for better or worse, are a legitimate business," Cullerton said. "They provide a service, particularly in this day and in this economy. I don't think it will be a detriment to the area. If the chamber said otherwise, then that would be a different story."

The pawnshop would be the second such business approved for the area this year. Windy City Pawn has received a special use to open a pawnshop in a vacant storefront at 5604 W. Belmont Ave., and the owners are carrying out renovations in preparation for opening, according to attorney Dean Maragos, who represents Windy City Pawn.

Belmont-Central Chamber executive director Reid Mackin said that the company's regional manager met with members of the chamber's board of directors and some neighboring businesses on March 9 to discuss EZ Pawn's proposal. Mackin said that a vote was not taken on the proposal because not all of the board members were present.

"It was generally a positive meeting," Mackin said. "They appear to have a good reputation and a national following. We may ask EZ Pawn to come back out for another meeting when everyone who has any concerns can meet with them, and our board members will eventually take a look at their other locations."

The manager told chamber members that the company would use about 2,500 square feet for sales space and that the remaining space would be used for storage, according to Mackin. The company is seeking to lease the building for about 20 years, and it intends to spend between $250,000 and $500,000 to renovate the space.

Mackin also said that the store would employ four or five people and would be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.

Mackin said that the same arguments that were made in favor of Windy City Pawn before the chamber voted to approve their proposal could not be made for EZ Pawn. "Windy City was moving into a small space, they would have been the only pawnshop in the neighborhood, and they are locally owned," he said. "None of those things are true with EZ Pawn. We had to address a completely different set of circumstances."

"Apparently because of these cable shows, the perception of these stores is slowly starting to change," Mackin said, referring to a number of cable television reality shows that are set in pawnshops. "A lot of pawnshop owners say their perception problems are caused by resale shops that aren't regulated. EZ Pawn told us they record every transaction. They take copies of photo IDs, they take pictures of the items people are pawning, and they interview the seller about the item and how they came to own it."

However, not all of the chamber members approve of the proposed pawnshop. Kelly Rauch, who owns Twice Interior Designs, 5450 W. Belmont Ave., said that the building has been allowed to fall into disrepair. Rauch, whose business is next door to the building, also said that the neighborhood already has a pawnshop that is locally owned, while EZ Pawn is a national chain. She criticized EZ Pawn's management for setting up the presentation to the chamber on short notice, when she and other chamber members could not attend.
"They're not going to care what happens to the neighborhood," Rauch said. "The alderman basically told the chamber that he didn't care and that he'd rather have any business in the building than have it stay empty. We're the ones in the neighborhood who call to get graffiti removed or if the building is open."

Rauch said that the neighborhood does not need a second pawnshop and that she has spoken to residents and other businesses owners that oppose it. She also said that the city has not been vigorous about citing the structure for building violations.

City records show that complaints made last year regarding the building include a report in April of glass falling from a marquee sign onto the sidewalk and a complaint in December that the front of the building was open. The structure was cited for building code violations in January and last May.

Belmont Bank and Trust, which is owned by the Banks family, announced plans to demolish the vacant building and build a branch with a drive-through facility on the site in 2010. Mackin said that those plans were scuttled by the poor economy.