Could microbreweries, theaters and other entertainment options be in the cards for Oak Park in 2011 and beyond? Could village government do anything to help entice entrepreneurs to open such businesses here?
Those are some of the questions raised in a two-part discussion that the village board is having this month on economic development in the community. That discussion got rolling on Monday, as the board heard presentations from staffers on the local business climate.
But trustees only scratched the surface, as the more substantive discussion will likely come in the next few weeks, possibly Jan. 24, when the board will talk about ways to recruit and retain businesses, said Village Manager Tom Barwin.
The likely next step will be to see if any current businesses in Oak Park are interested in expanding and whether there is anything the village could do to help. Some ideas have been suggested, but Barwin declined to elaborate before the next get-together.
"There are other concepts that we have been approached on that were interesting that never got beyond the concept," he said.
Oak Park has advantages when it comes to fostering business entrepreneurship — the village is close to trains and the Eisenhower Expressway, has plenty of daytime employees and people living nearby with enough money to spend, said Loretta Daly, business services manager for Oak Park. It has its downside, too, such as high property taxes, parking restrictions and aging buildings that aren't always adaptable to what retailers look for these days.
Daly said the village is actively looking to expand its leisure and entertainment offerings, especially in downtown Oak Park and the village's arts district. More such businesses could help drive people to other shops and restaurants in the area.
"Those are leaders that bring in a traffic that is very important for us, and I think we have a lot of opportunity," she said.
The village has tools in hand if it wants to spur development. The municipal government owns several high-profile pieces of property that are ripe for reinvention — such as lots at the northeast corner of Oak Park and Madison, and on Lake near Harlem. And the village still has three tax increment financing districts (TIFs) in its development toolbox, Daly said,.
Oak Park may also look at bringing back past grant programs that were used to encourage new businesses to open, or to entice old business owners to expand or spruce up their properties.
Trustee Jon Hale said one of the village's biggest weaknesses in economic develoment is its lack of sizeable vacant space.
"We're really generally precluded from any significant-sized new retail or office or entertainment destinations," he said. "We're not going to get any Costcos here or Targets. We're not going to get a Muvico or office parks. That is a structural weakness to our market."
Village President David Pope, however, replied, "From a quality-of-life standpoint, you may not want that, even if you had the room," he said.
Trustee Ray Johnson said Oak Park shouldn't rule out the idea of snagging a store like Target, since the chain has tended more recently to place its stores in unusual footprints, stacked on two floors, that are much smaller than the Targets of yore.
After the meeting, Barwin said Monday's discussion was an extension of last year's budget deliberations, as Oak Park figures how it wants to dedicate its dollars to economic development. The board may also explore whether the village wants to hire a director to oversee development efforts, as Oak Park had in the past.
Trustees will pick up the discussion again in the next 30 days, to talk about attracting and retaining businesses, Barwin said.