There's been a troubling mini-exodus in recent years. And it's one that, no matter where, or with whom you lay the blame, our village officials should be paying attention to.
A growing number of Oak Park's small businesses have been heading across Harlem to set up shop in what many merchants have found to be greener pastures?#34;Forest Park's Madison Street corridor. Some of the businesses we've lost are the unique, hidden-gem-like stores, like Two Fish Art Glass, Centuries and Sleuths, and Todd and Holland (from River Forest). These are the kind of stores that aren't on Oak Park's pre-approved list of retailers for the new mixed-use RSC project on Lake Street. They keep Oak Park from feeling like Schaumburg, or Naperville, or any of those other suburbs we like to scoff at and say we'll never be.
For many of these businesses, the move to Forest Park has given them the chance to become the big kids on a new block. There's a momentum on Forest Park's "Main Street," a lot of positive energy, businesses get the message "we want you here" and, practically, the rent is cheaper (at least for now).
Oak Park, on the other hand, is perceived by some to have a turgid business permit process and as being petty about enforcing snotty ordinances?#34;banning sandwich signs, or getting in a huff and writing tickets over how many images are depicted on an awning, for example.
Oak Park can't do much to make its rent cheaper, and the village faces some problems that can seem insurmountable, such as scarcity of parking.
But Oak Park's reputation, in contrast to Forest Park's, is something that the village should really be paying attention to.
The village has plenty of business-friendly programs in place?#34;such as the retail rehab grant program. And it does help merchants deal with what they may perceive as pesky Oak Park ordinances (giving grants for making now-mandated landscaping improvements to parking lots).
But on another level, what it seems to be missing is a welcoming atmosphere, and an ability to do a little handholding. A lot of independent store owners, or even franchisees, have a tremendous amount invested in their business, and to keep these stores around, Oak Park may need to be a little more cognizant of that.
There's a board study session up ahead where trustees will discuss equity in business district funding, and hear a report on how business services and support will be improved.
We hope the conversation goes beyond programs and process to what's at the heart of keeping the good mix of independent and large retailers that keeps Oak Park unique.