The Village of Oak Park has at least $8 million in its pocket that it can use to lure developers to come here. Officials need to start deciding in the coming weeks where those dollars could be used — but they pointed this week to the need for a bowling alley, pubs and a big-box retailer in Oak Park.
Village trustees held a second discussion on Monday as officials look for ways that village hall can guide the future of economic development in the community. Village government owns several pieces of prominently located land, and has a pot of money waiting to be used for bolstering business here.
"You can meet a lot of your daily needs right here in Oak Park, and we certainly want to hold onto that very foundation," said Village Manager Tom Barwin. "But we want to build from there."
Village officials are focusing their efforts on Madison Street and downtown Oak Park. Both of those areas have commercial space available, and the village has two tax increment financing districts in those districts. (TIF is a fund created by freezing property taxes in a specified geographic district at a certain level. Increases in future tax revenues above that amount are funneled into the TIF fund for use in development and infrastructure projects designed to aid economic development.)
The Madison and Downtown Oak Park TIFs expire in 2016 and 2018, respectively, and the village wants to start allocating those dollars before the funds dry up. About $32 million should be available for use before the expiration dates, according to Barwin.
He's recommending that about $8 million (or 25 percent) go toward enticing developers to build here. The largest portion (about $22.4 million or 70 percent) would be used for infrastructure projects, such as building public parking garages or new streets. The smallest bit, about $1.6 million, could be made available as grants for building owners to spruce up their properties, Barwin said.
But some trustees expressed worry that Oak Park was throwing too much money toward fixing up roads, and not enough for attracting developers and new businesses. Trustee Jon Hale said allocating just 25 percent to incentives is "extremely problematic."
"Streetscape is not a very clear-cut way to increase the property tax base," Hale said. "That's what TIF dollars are supposed to be spent for."
Oak Park is investing about $5 million in TIF dollars to spruce up the 100 blocks of South Marion and South Oak Park Avenue this year. Officials hope that the brick streets and bluestone sidewalks will spur building owners and developers to invest in private properties.
Barwin and Village President David Pope pointed out that Oak Park owns about $14.5 million worth of property on Madison and in the village's downtown district. Those parcels could be used to further entice developers, possibly by discounting the land.
Investing dollars in streets and sidewalks would benefit all property owners, rather than just one, Pope added.
"There is benefit from not just putting those dollars in one person's pocket, but instead actually making those investments in ways that benefit all of the property owners, the businesses, the future businesses and the community," Pope said.
Village hall and the Oak Park Development Corp. analyzed the village's current business market and found several areas that could be added or expanded. Officials say there's a need for more medical facilities, higher education institutions, a bowling alley, pubs and big-box stores. Oak Park hopes to target those businesses in the next two years, possibly using TIF dollars as an incentive.
Barwin also mentioned the idea of starting several "economic development funds" of $500,000, which could be used in areas that don't have TIFs — such as Harrison Street, Chicago and Harlem, and Oak Park Avenue just north of the expressway.
Trustees held off on having an extended conversation about village staff's recommendations. They hope to continue the chat sometime in February.