By Dan Haley
Finally, finally … on Monday night there was a determinedly honest conversation about economic development at Oak Park's village hall. And there was remarkable consensus among the village president, board members and the head of the Oak Park Development Corporation, who testified.
Economic development in Oak Park is broken. Just plain broken. The last time it worked right, well, no one is quite sure.
There are chronic failings internally at village hall in permitting and inspections that had Village Trustee Ray Johnson abandoning his "praise staff publicly, criticize privately" policy.
"How many times do we need to say this?!" he said of the perpetual board complaints about permits and code enforcement.
There are chronic failings in the relationship between village staff with roles in business growth and the staff at OPDC, the alleged partner agency charged with economic development. Marty Noll, chairman of both OPDC and Community Bank, told the board in the most candid conversation I've heard publicly, "This is a delicate matter. It is about personalities, and it is about who is in control of what." He argued, and was strongly supported by Village President Anan Abu-Taleb, that OPDC needed to be "empowered" as the clear and accountable lead in economic development.
Some trustees weren't sure OPDC has the moxie to play such a key role. Responding to Abu-Taleb's assertion that he wanted to "double down" on OPDC, Trustee Glenn Brewer said he "wasn't a gambling man" and would need to see much more from OPDC before he bought in. Trustee Colette Lueck closed the intense but cathartic meeting saying, "There has been lots of finger-pointing tonight in both directions [toward the village and toward OPDC]. That's healthy. The partnership has not worked well." A very clear assessment.
While Noll called the village government "the 900-pound elephant in the room," I'd suggest the real unspoken issue on Monday night was staffing at OPDC. While Abu-Taleb, Noll, trustees and even public commenters all used the "re-" prefix as a euphemism for drastic change — calling for OPDC to be "reinvented," "re-imagined," "reconstituted," "re-energized" — Brewer came closest to the plain statement when he asked Noll if the remaking of OPDC would include "staff changes." Noll's response: "It could."
Abu-Taleb ran on the issue of development and fixing what is broken; Village Manager Cara Pavlicek knows the last village manager was bounced largely because he couldn't fix code and permitting; OPDC is facing a giant cut in village funding in the current draft budget; there are many and immediate development issues such as the Dominick's departure, Lake and Forest, the Colt project, the Madison and Oak Park RFP; and there is a window offered by the improving economy, so trustees are looking for a fast-track resolution. Let's see how fast Oak Park can move.
The real discussions can't be had until it is acknowledged that OPDC needs new staff leadership. Sara Faust, the longtime president and before that the number two at the organization, needs to step aside. That's a hard truth because Faust has devoted herself to this organization. The next truth is that hiring a new chief won't fix OPDC by itself. There was no golden age at OPDC. Everyone, including me, loved Art Replogle, the founding chair, and some critical things happened, but a good bit of the same silly nonsense went on. The Stankus Hole, for instance.
We need an actual and profound re-invention of OPDC. We need internal systems that work at village hall. We need to put the power and the responsibility for development in one place and put an electric charge into the effort. Monday's meeting, with its candor and its catharsis, was a necessary start.