BCC sought balance to Oak Park's development debate

?Group gives perspective, seeks influence with forums, position papers

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By DREW CARTER

This year's runner-up for Villager of the Year is a group somewhat similar to Citizens for Change (see story, page 1). And yet, the Business and Civic Council of Oak Park (BCC) formed as somewhat of a foil to what its leaders call the "anti-development" movement that led to the creation of neighborhood groups and ultimately a political party that now controls the village.

The following is a conversation with Frank Pellegrini, president of both Prairie Title Co. and the BCC, and Bill Strong, an executive at a Chicago public relations firm and secretary of BCC.

Wednesday Journal: Tell me about the creation of the BCC. There was a certain loss of having the village's ear on issues?

Frank Pellegrini: Well, that may be part of the story there. A group of us would get together periodically?#34;no set agenda. We would just meet to have coffee and discuss the goings-on about the village.

Bill Strong: I came to it in May 2004 and we incorporated in July 2004. It was not the individual self-interest of [those] sitting around the table, it was more the sense that there was something missing in the public debate on economic growth issues, that we didn't feel that the village board at that time was handling the issue particularly well.

On the other side, we saw this growing, very muscular, anti-development sentiment.

So, we felt there was a very important piece of the debate that wasn't present and that needed to be present that said, "What we're trying to achieve in Oak Park relies heavily on a very strong commercial tax base, and we cannot keep going back to the homeowners to raise our property taxes so that we have good schools, good infrastructure, affordable housing programs, etc. This was being lost in the public debates. It wasn't a matter of whether we could go to village hall and say something.

Pellegrini: The main point is the public debate notion. The idea was there was a void in the communication of the principals publicly. We have a very vocal anti-development constituency in Oak Park. They were getting their message out very effectively. The message of business leaders and community leaders was not as effectively getting out.

Strong: There really was a lack of balance.

Parenthetically, from the beginning we have set out to be aggressively independent and aggressively non-partisan. Our bylaws prevent us from endorsing candidates because we want to be able to talk to every party and every group that might be represented on the village board.

So, you had a village board that, whether it was doing the right things or not, was cast as sort of pro-development at all costs. That created this sense that a reasoned argument for economic growth wasn't there because if you were with the village board you were pro-growth at all costs, and that really wasn't what we thought represented what a lot of people in Oak Park believe.

Journal: Where would you put the genesis of that "anti-development" movement?#34;where did it begin, was there something that triggered it?

Strong: One of the key events was the Oak Park Hospital expansion. There was the perception that the hospital and the developers did not go to the neighborhood soon enough. There were other localized issues, and REDCOOP [Responsible Economic Development?#34;Citizens of Oak Park, whose founders were Villagers of the Year in 2002] did a very effective job of pulling these diverse community concerns together into a unified party. I give REDCOOP a lot of credit for, at the very least, their fieldwork and mobilization. They did a very effective job at tapping into dissatisfaction with how the village was going about development projects.

Pellegrini: But the BCC is not the counterpart to REDCOOP. There are many things on which we agree with REDCOOP. And we're not a pro-development organization.

Strong: And REDCOOP is not always anti-growth. But in my way of thinking, REDCOOP was where this came together and took on a political strength.

Journal: Who's on the BCC board?

Strong: We have a seven-member board: Frank is president, [Dominican University president] Donna Carroll is vice president, [Community Bank Oak Park River Forest president] Marty Noll is treasurer, I'm the secretary, and other directors are Mike Fox [large property owner and owner of The Carleton Hotel], Willis Johnson [Lake Theatre owner], and Bill Planek [owner of Greenplan Management, a large apartment rental company].

Journal: There are a lot of real estate-interest people on the board, and no small business or shop owners. Was that on purpose?

Pellegrini: Well, the board of directors, like any organization, comes together from a group of people that have the time and resources and ability to give of their time and resources. Often a small business owner will resist getting on the board of directors of an organization because of the time commitment. We have a number of small business owners who are members of the BCC. [The dues-based group has about 30 members.]

Strong: We have space for more folks, and I think membership is something in 2006 we'll look to grow. The neighborhood small business owner is an area we'd like to expand into to a greater extent.

Journal: Do you see any tension between the different areas of the business community?#34;property owners, shop owners, people whose business interests are outside the village?#34;on issues where they have competing interests?

Strong: I guess they compete for the time and attention of the village board. I don't know if they are mutually exclusive or competing interests. For example, one of the things a subcommittee of our board is looking at is code and code enforcement. That is one thing that small businesses in particular are concerned about. You know, what is it going to take to get a permit to expand my business? [Those day-to-day issues will be somewhat more important to small business owners] versus a real estate company that has more of a macro kind of an interest in parcels of land in Oak Park.

It's not a friction. We each have different things that are particularly important to us depending on where we sit.

Journal: What has changed from the group being around?

Strong: I don't want to be presumptuous, but I think we have brought a balance and bipartisan business and civic perspective to some of these issues we've been talking about.

We're chipping away at it. I feel like we've had an impact, but there's more to be done.

Pellegrini: I think that little bits of the message are getting through. Any tendencies for groups to rail and engage in hyperbole and broad statements one way or another are probably going to be viewed a little bit more skeptically. If we can get citizens to start getting past the catch phrases and the sound bites and into really analyzing the issues that affect this town we've done our job.

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