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Sprucing up a ragged downtown to help fashion a comeback

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Every Saturday, weather permitting, Jerry Fell wheels out his carnival popcorn popper. It sits in front of his shoe store in downtown Highland Park, attracting customers. Passers-by are given free bags of the freshly popped fluffy stuff.

It is a small gesture - but a telling one in the shopping district of this northern Chicago suburb. It is one of many signs that this city's downtown is on the way up.

Like many communities across the United States, Highland Park's downtown was losing business to a nearby shopping mall. Four years ago about 20 storefronts were vacant.

''Everybody was panicky,'' recalls the mayor.

Now, all that has changed. Only two downtown stores are vacant. Roughly a third have done some kind of building or remodeling. And city officials, pointing proudly to an office-shopping complex being built, say that the city's experience can be repeated elsewhere.

''Other communities can do what we've done,'' says Mayor Robert M. Buhai. Many communities are beginning to sit up and take notice.

It can't be said that Highland Park is your typical community.

Rolls-Royces glide by large mansions. The town of 30,000 residents boasts six golf courses - a fact even Mayor Buhai is a little embarrassed to admit. US Census figures show the community in the top 2 percent nationally in terms of average per capita income.

But there may be lessons here for other communities concerned about their downtowns, observers say.

Problems began when the Northbrook Court mall opened in 1975. In 1979, a major downtown department store closed its doors.

''Things were not looking too good,'' city manager Larry Rice recalls.

To counter the erosion, the suburb decided to borrow a big-city idea - the multi-use project. Such projects, which combine store space with offices or apartments, are relatively rare in the suburbs, says Stuart Rogel, research associate with the Urban Land Institute in Washington. But they are gaining acceptance.

Last year in Highland Park, a team of local developers broke ground for Port Clinton, a $15.1 million project combining office with retail space. The city was a full partner in the project. It bought the land, leased it back to the developer for 99 years, and ploughed $5 million into a plaza and underground garage.

Community approval was not exactly forthcoming, however.

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