By Dan Haley
It has been said, by me it turns out, that if the cash-impaired village of Oak Park had one do-over in the past several years it would be to save the million-plus it spent gussying up Chicago Avenue from Ridgeland to Austin to no particular effect.
Turns out I have a supporter. And it is a village trustee.
Last week the village board was soaking in the moonshine of streetscaping again. They can't take their eyes off what they made of that half-block of Marion Street from the el tracks to Lake Street. You can make something pretty nice with enough money. Now, the staff and board want to continue the elegant design this way and that throughout the downtown TIF district. The total cost, we reported a few months back along with the news that the village was angling for major federal money, was something over $20 million. That buys a lot of slate sidewalks.
The immediate focus though might be on South Marion Street, the two-block stretch on the far side of the el and home to several of the town's more appealing restaurants. We've got the not-to-be-missed rendering of the recast Marion Street on page 11.
Along comes Trustee Jon Hale, though, with a caution. Maybe fancy streetscaping is only part of the economic development puzzle, he told the board last week and me in an interview Monday afternoon.
"This isn't black and white. It's not that all streetscaping is bad," he said. It's just that Oak Park "needs to do a lot" on economic development, said Hale, a first-termer who recently announced he would be a one-termer owing to family and work considerations.
Hale talked about having read an article a few years ago about how local governments can fuel economic development. The point of the article, he said, "is that it is what's in the stores that counts."
So Hale wants to see the village concentrate on investing in recruiting new stores, programs for buildouts, ways to speed entrepreneurs through the village's still clunky apparatus for opening a business.
"We need to get our act together on business recruitment. We have to do better on getting new businesses open. The village has no economic development person (the post was cut in layoffs over the past two years)," said Hale.
He expressed doubts about the ability of the Oak Park Development Corporation to "provide that kind of leadership." At the same time he echoes the frequent party line that Oak Park, and other inner ring, transit-oriented suburbs "should be well positioned for the new normal" once the economy does turn upward.
Hale though is critical of the cacophony of voices used to market the village to potential new residents, businesses and tourists. "We should pull together everyone who is responsible for marketing Oak Park, put all their money through one agency so we can market Oak Park with one voice."
And, yes, he said something rude about the "silly tourism logo."
Going back to Chicago and Ridgeland, Hale said what I've said. The streetscaping there "hasn't spurred any economic development that I've seen." As someone who tries actively to shop at Chicago and Austin — a nice hardware store, the Jamaican jerk chicken place, car rentals — I agree.
This is no screed against streetscaping. A nicely turned bench is a thing to behold. But it can't be the only arrow in the quiver and right now it feels like it is.