Village officials would love to see top comedy acts and concerts in Oak Park, but they're just not sure where to put them. That's why village hall is talking to the owner of a local museum about the possibility of partnering to create an all-purpose concert venue here.
The Arts Center of Oak Park, located at Oak Park and Ontario, has been available since 1988, occasionally hosting concerts and consistently providing a home for the Ernest Hemingway Museum. The neo-classical building is impressive, said Village Manager Tom Barwin, but it's nearly 100 years old and in need of upgrades.
So village hall is discussing the possibility of kicking in TIF (tax increment financing) dollars to help with upgrades, making it more accessible, and widening the stage.
"It's a magnificent facility," Barwin said. "We've seen that it could work as an entertainment venue and a tourist attraction. I just would hate to let an opportunity slip without any analysis or conversation."
Upgrading the arts center was mentioned as a priority in the village's downtown master plan, which was completed by a consultant in 2005. Other options for funding any needed upgrades could include foundations, investors or state grants, Barwin said.
The arts center is currently owned by Chatka Ruggiero, a River Forest resident and semi-retired real estate investor. She bought the building in 1988 and converted it from a church to its current use. Ruggiero is eyeing full retirement and says she's had some offers to turn the center into a church or condos. However, she would prefer to see 200 N. Oak Park Ave. continue with its current use.
"I want to see the building remain as a cultural arts center," she said. "I'm not anxious to see it go condo or revert back to a church."
Barwin emphasized that the talks are very preliminary. He brought them up last week as part of a village board meeting about economic development in Oak Park. Trustees are expected to continue the discussion this month, to see whether they have any interest in pursuing the partnership.
Oak Park expanded the boundaries of its downtown TIF in 2005 to include the arts center, anticipating that TIF dollars could possibly be used for a "feasibility study," said Craig Failor, village planner. As suggested in Oak Park's downtown master plan, the study could help determine what repairs are needed and the best use for the property.
The arts center previously had issues with property taxes, as reported by Wednesday Journal last year. The bill jumped from $13,141 to $52,662 last year, shocking Ruggiero.
After a successful appeal, taxes dropped dramatically in 2010 (to $26,082), though not to their previous modest level, according to Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar.
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