New OPEDC must be allowed to succeed

Opinion: Columns

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By Frank Pellegini

The Business and Civic Council of Oak Park (BCC) endorses efforts to reconstitute the Oak Park Development Corp. and the apparent willingness of the village board to back the redesign.

Village President Anan Abu-Taleb has signaled his impatience for change — to the point of pushing, before the new Oak Park Economic Development Corp. is even approved, to quicken the pace of naming an interim director. And Trustee Ray Johnson has vowed, despite a funding guarantee of only two years, that after four decades this particular economic development model is here to stay.

The BCC urges trustees to back the plan when it comes up for a vote, which may be as soon as next Monday.

However without other changes, the new agreement will merely paper over what became a dysfunctional relationship between the expiring OPDC and village hall. Many developers view Oak Park inhospitably because of Oak Park's red tape and often unresponsive bureaucracy.

 If those conditions don't change — and perceptions take longer to change than reality — the new development corporation is being set up to fail. Buy-in needs to occur among village managers and staff, and that can't be written into any contract. Turf wars need to end. It can't be business as usual.

While criticized, OPDC and its model have benefited the village by offering developers, retailers and others a point of contact for early discussions to occur outside of the public glare. The village has always retained the final say in terms of any deals that are struck.

The BCC acknowledges the village's budget challenges. Staff, led by Village Manager Cara Pavlicek, proposed cutting the new OPEDC's requested 2014 appropriation of $721,500 to $561,375 over 11 months, supplemented by $100,000 from the expiring OPDC's fund balance. That would still mean an 80 percent increase in public funding, or $361,000 more than the already-adopted $200,000 appropriation.

Staff also floated an alternative: a phase-in that would cut the proposed number of employees (full-time equivalents) to three from four, saving a proposed $230,000 in salary and benefits. The village board appears ready to reject that more conservative approach — wisely, it appears to us.

Still like other commentators, the BCC worries about rich salary levels contained in the proposal, including $170,000, plus benefits, for a development director, who would out-earn the executive director by $50,000. In comparison, marketing expenses of $60,000 constitute barely 8 percent of the total annual budget.

If authorized, as appears likely, the new OPEDC is confronted with making its own plan work. The BCC believes it should be given that chance.

Frank Pellegrini is president of the Business and Civic Council of Oak Park.

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