Rehab grant recipients welcome changes in program

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By DREW CARTER

The Village of Oak Park's Retail Rehab Grant has aimed to attract businesses to the village for more than a decade. But it's fallen short of giving some new business owners a financial boost when opening a shop or restaurant in the village.

Karen Gruber, one of the owners of The Perfect Dinner, 809 South Blvd., said the amount of red tape needed when applying for a grant was understandable, especially considering the approximately $50,000 reward the business got in return in 2003.

But the owners waited a month between the time their grant was approved by the Retail Rehab Grant Committee and when it was OK'd by the village board.

And there were other delays. The village requires grant recipients to include minority- and women-owned contractors and subcontractors to be involved in the business' construction bid process. Owners of The Perfect Dinner were miffed that village staff could not supply them with a list of such contractors, citing conflict of interest concerns, Gruber said.

She said the company lost contractors interested in the project because they didn't employ any minority subcontractors.

"It's hard to hold us to a standard and not help us meet that standard," Gruber said.

Jim August, who opened Cafe Le Coq, 734 Lake St., in 2003, also had problems with the minority contractor requirement.

He said the village did supply him with a list of contractors, but that none were interested in his project because it was too small. That added to delays in opening the restaurant?#34;delays that amounted to more than a month because of the grant application, he said.

The grant application required a five-year lease to be processed. That meant paying rent without the possibility for revenue on a site.

"When it's coupled with the way the building department looks at projects, it's a double whammy," August said. "Time is money, and when [the village] doesn't look at it that way...it becomes very difficult when people are not big corporations."

August said that the delay costs offset the $25,000 grant he received, and that he regretted not learning more about the grant before applying for it.

Trustee Gus Kostopulos, board liaison to the grant committee, said the grant program works, but that it needed "a little tweaking." Proposed changes are under review by the committee (see accompanying article), and are expected to be voted on at the board's next meeting.

In the past, grants were primarily awarded to restaurants.

"There's nothing wrong with restaurants, but there should be some variety," Kostopulos said.

August praised the program, too, in theory. He said programs like it and Oak Park Development Corporation low-interest loans are important for small business owners.

He estimated that the impact of his restaurant has more than returned the amount of the grant to the village.

August recommended that small business owners review any grant programs carefully before applying. "Basically, just be prepared. The process is going to slow down."

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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