By Anna Lothson
The Oak Park village board gave the Oak Park Development Corporation — the village's main catalyst for economic development — a clear message Monday evening: fix yourself, or funding may change.
It's been widely known there have been unanswered questions of who is responsible for what in the village when it comes to promoting Oak Park's business community. It's been said there are too many voices, and voices that aren't talking to each other.
This theme became transparent Monday when trustees were sharp to criticize progress from both the village's internal perspective and its partnering agency. Trustee Bob Tucker summed up much of what his colleagues said by quoting a friend who recently discussed the issue with him.
"There are a lot of people playing the game, but on different fields," Tucker said. "There are two issues here."
The two issues Tucker referred to involve deciding if the village should hire a community and economic development director to head a newly created department which oversees planning, building and property standards, housing and business services. The second issue is defining what role OPDC plays in Oak Park's economic development vision and to what extent the agency should continue to be funded by the village.
Currently, the village funds roughly 80 percent of OPDC's budget — or $300,000 — for the organization that staffs four full-time employers. A 2014 budget proposal from Village Manager Cara Pavlicek suggests cutting OPDC's funding by a third; trustees and OPDC leaders had plenty to say about that recommendation, too.
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb, who has been vocal in criticizing Oak Park's economic development progress, was frustrated that he learned about the funding cut proposal from OPDC leaders and not personally from village management.
The conversation of the evening included Willis Johnson, former president of Downtown Oak Park and the owner of the Lake Theatre; Paul Zimmerman, past president of the Roosevelt Road Business Association; and Thomas Gallagher, a longtime villager active in development who serves on the OPDC board.
Johnson said Oak Park suffers from "two nagging problems that are long term": economic development and having a unified voice in Oak Park. He suggested OPDC has the most knowledge and qualifications to determine a development plan.
"Regardless of which direction it goes, it needs to be one voice," Johnson said.
He also spoke about the needed changes in the building department, a touchy topic that trustees later reiterated, and how there needs to be a more streamlined, focused process for helping Oak Park businesses.
Zimmerman, the former leader of the Berwyn Development Corporation, said what Oak Park needs is to offer incentives to developers and business to come to Oak Park. He cited the business growth on Berwyn's side of Roosevelt Road and compared it to Oak Park's side. Zimmerman suggested Berwyn has a dynamic group "pounding the pavement" to attract businesses, which he said Oak Park lacks.
"If we want to continue to be the vital, economically diverse town …we have to spread the tax base," he said.
Multiple village board members have said throughout the economic development talks that Oak Park must do this in order to avoid burdening residents with higher property taxes to keep up with the rising costs of government.
Gallagher spoke briefly about both topics of the evening and said Oak Park needs a vision that encompasses an entrepreneurial spirit and a development leader who can bring real growth to town. He suggested this is not present at OPDC or the village today, and said the best step begins with a "reconstituted OPDC," and not in village hall.
"It's not about management. It's about development," he said. "The village needs a developer, not an administrator."
Reconstituted, reinvigorated, reinvented and re-envisioned: the r words remained a theme of the evening.
'It's simple and complex'
Marty Noll, OPDC board chair, sat in the hot seat most of the night presenting a case for the development group, taking questions from trustees and asking to come back to the board with its vision to take Oak Park to the next level. He said currently, the group is doing the "chicken and egg" dance, not knowing what the village wants before it can decide how to act and move forward.
He said the OPDC board plans to create a presentation for the village, but does not want to reorganize its entire structure without knowing the village will be receptive to its thoughts.
"You need to decide," Noll said. "I don't want to create us and then have you say 'It doesn't work, we'll see you next year.' "
Noll said the village controls OPDC operation without proper funding, guidance and a vision and that Oak Park has "tied the hands of OPDC." What the organization needs, he said, is empowerment to move forward under a jointly agreed upon and "reinvested" OPDC.
"It's simple and complex," Noll said, referring to upgrading OPDC as the village looks to add another internal director position. "Village staff does not have and is not the right organization. …One new addition will not alter the village's reputation in the village. I believe it will continue to fall short."
Noll proposed economic development be moved out of village hall entirely, and instead allow village officials to have more of a voice on OPDC's board and not the other way around.
"This may change how OPDC is operated," Noll said, which he later confirmed could mean a change in the staff and its organizational structure. The change would involve getting one voice for development under one roof to set identifiable goals and objectives.
What the village board thinks
Monday's meeting about economic development shifted largely to the role of OPDC in the village, but the question of hiring a community and economic development director within the village still remains a question for the village board.
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek stood by her hiring recommendation and said with a "slimmer staff" it's necessary to get the reports from across the four departments under one person. Having four directors report to the village manager is not efficient, she said, and it creates gaps in communication. In response to a trustee's question, Pavlicek confirmed implementing one director doesn't necessarily entail adding another $135,000 salary to the payroll; it could mean shifting the current department roles. That's up to the board to decide, she said.
The trustees agreed when it came to OPDC, a new vision is needed. What role that might be led to an array of perspectives. Each trustee agreed, however, that economic development needs to be centralized under one voice.
"There's not a question that we have an internal problem when it comes to economic development here," Trustee Collette Lueck said. "I'm not sure why they haven't been resolved. We hear it over and over again. …I do think whatever solution we have, there has to be one person accountable."
She suggested having en economic development director in the village to deal with internal issues, while having OPDC report to that person could create "duel accountability," which she said could be a beneficial change.
"Otherwise, we end up with what we have now," Lueck said. "I don't see how keeping the same structure we've had for 40 years can work."
Lueck said her vision entails having an economic director work with an external agency to create a partnership that develops a marketing plan for the village and its corresponding agencies. Other trustees backed this concept.
Trustee Ray Johnson jumped on the criticism of the current building department, and said it's time to speak the truth.
"I don't know how many other times we can say that to that department. When we have public criticism, we must criticize the department publically," Johnson said. The trustee also suggested the village should get the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce involved with OPDC to see what a merged vision looks like.
"I think we have a fairly interesting proposal from OPDC. We obviously need a lot more on that," Johnson said.
Abu-Taleb continued his suggestions that the village isn't equipped to deal with economic development as presently structured and said it's time for Oak Park to "double down in a re-invested OPDC," and help Oak Park reinvent itself. He also said OPDC needs to "get their act together," and prove it can move the village forward.
Trustee Glenn Brewer questioned if OPDC has the right people for the job, and said what's needed is a "substantial change in culture." Johnson also said he's not ready to take a risk on OPDC, and said next year's budget may be a time where OPDC has to dip into its reserves and prove itself to the village before the village continues to fund the organization from its limited budget.
"You need a reliable, experienced staff to carry out its mission," Brewer said. "I don't believe OPDC has the ability to do this."
Noll agreed the current partnership between OPDC and the village has not worked well, and said now is the time to show the two can unite.
After the robust conversation, trustees agreed they will review OPDC's proposal at a special meeting before deciding how to move forward with OPDC and also if the village should continue its plan to hire a community and economic development director. Trustees concluded by agreeing with a suggestion from colleague Peter Barber.
"I'm very open to whatever the best solution is," he said. "I don't want to waste time. I'm open to whatever makes sense. …it's needs to be expedited."