Last night, I spoke against a new pawnshop that has applied to open in the Town & Country shopping center (McLean/Lillian, in the old Trefon’s).
I’ve learned a lot about the pawn industry lately. It’s not nearly as seedy as I thought. Pawnshops are actually a much better option for people than the payday loans and cash-for-gold shops that have sprung up like noxious weeds. They’re tightly regulated by both the state and city, and work closely with the police to report their daily intakes. They make their money through loans, and in the end, the customer often gets their item back, to re-pawn later if needed. With cash-for-gold stores, items are quickly melted down, never to be seen again.
But sometimes, reality doesn’t matter nearly as much as perception.
Perceptions run deep. They start in childhood and grow as you’re exposed to the world: to your parents, to television and movies, to friends, to teachers. And those perceptions, once baked in, are very tough to change. When cobbled together, perceptions form images of people, communities, or things.
Elgin knows this. Elgin fights perceptions daily, constantly crafting and re-casting Elgin’s image. In the six years I’ve lived here, my marketer’s heart has marveled at all the effort that goes into crafting and re-casting Elgin’s image.
- We spent $75,000 (!) to redesign our city logo and develop a slogan: “The City in the Suburbs.”
- We have an Image Commission that gives annual “Image Awards” to recognize “image-enhancing efforts from Elgin residents, businesses and civic organizations.”
- We build and rebuild websites to lure companies from abroad, filled with pictures of diverse, happy people who have somehow found an Elgin where it’s always sunny.
Image is on the minds and lips of city officials, not to mention residents who contradict outdated perceptions that continue to tarnish our image decades later.
We spent oodles of money on fancy brick pavers and new streetscaping for downtown. We celebrate ECC as a major regional destination. The city tries to lure golfers to the courses it owns, including one right by the proposed pawnshop. Thousands of out-of-towners come to Larkin High School every year for various sports and other extracurricular activities.
Each person who comes into our town makes or affirms their own perceptions of Elgin. Each presents an opportunity to change their minds, to shake their perceptions of the Elgin of old. For the younger people headed to ECC or Larkin, it’s often a first impression. So we talk about how the entry corridors fuel these perceptions.
And yet, when faced with a pawnshop to open at a major interchange and entry point, we allow it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for letting the market decide what types of businesses can open in a given area. But the city puts pawnshops in a separate category for a reason. Until a year ago, there were none in town. The city created a special type of license for pawnshops, and issued only one, to Windy City Jewelry & Loan. Windy City doesn’t use the word “Pawn” in their signage. They don’t overtly advertise that’s what they do. (Interestingly, the city has no such restrictions on payday loans, cash-for-gold shops or similar businesses. By my count, there are at least 20 such businesses scattered around town, including one already in the Town & Country shopping center.)
But this new shop will have “EZPAWN” emblazoned 30 inches high by 198 inches wide, on a bright red background. Depending on how they position the sign, it will be one of the first things people see when they exist Route 20 at McLean, or even as they drive past on 20. That includes people going to Larkin, ECC and the Highlands golf course.
The Zoning Board recognized this and asked the petitioners if they could perhaps not use the word “Pawn” on their sides, and instead use the corporate name, EZ-Corp. But EZPawn is the trade name, so of course they’ll use their name on their signage.
The Board ultimately approved the proposal, which now heads to the City Council for final approval.
Whatever you personally believe about pawnshops, the widely held perception is not good. Thanks to my research, my perceptions have certainly changed. (Plus, Google now serves me lots of ads for pawnshops, payday loans, and bankruptcy attorneys.) But if someone already has less-than-ideal image of Elgin, how will that sign change – or affirm – their perceptions?
Am I off base? What do you think?
View the entire petition and Zoning Board details. Full disclosure: in my capacity as president of the South West Area Neighbors, I did write a letter based on input from the neighborhood, and spoke at the hearing.