By Anna Lothson
The facade of downtown Oak Park has evolved in recent years, and last week the new face of the business organization by the same name set foot on the job.
Max Williams, a 27-year-old resident of the Old Town neighborhood in Chicago, started his post as Downtown Oak Park's executive director, filling the vacancy left by Pat Zubak who announced her retirement in July. Though a few decades younger than Zubak, Williams comes to Oak Park with similar experience in an identical position for the Downtown Wheaton Association, where he served for just under two years after being promoted from an economic and marketing position within the group.
Wheaton's organization, he said, is set up like Oak Park's, as is the makeup of its downtowns — two factors that drew him further east.
"Something that definitely attracted me to downtown Oak Park, which was something that attracted me to downtown Wheaton, is that I love the independent business. … To see this kind of history of families that have had businesses for generations down here is really cool."
He has experience organizing the kind of "signature" events DTOP puts on throughout the year, and understands why that drives necessary foot traffic into the district, while supporting Oak Park as a whole. Williams said he is ready to adapt to a new community.
"Oak Park offers a different experience in terms of the size of the community itself, the size of the downtown and a little bit more related to the diversity of the businesses that are down here," he said.
A political science background from Indiana University gives him an edge in working with local governments on community and economic development in a municipal setting. Williams' experience began not long after his family moved to Wheaton about 15 years ago during a time when the town was in need of a massive revitalization. The western suburb got its upgrade and inspired Williams toward a career path.
"I saw firsthand this really dramatic progression toward residential development and commercial development. I got to see this evolution of a downtown and that really spurred my interest before I knew necessarily what that meant. I just knew I wanted to be a part of that," he said.
"Today, to be an executive director of an association that largely is responsible for those initiatives — it's just tremendous. I find it fulfilling. I found it in Wheaton and I most certainly feel it here."
In an interview in late September with DTOP's board president, Bob Johnson said Williams brings a "youthful, energetic passion to the job." He noted his efforts building strong relationships within the Wheaton community and establishing a long-term funding agreement for the group and helped re-brand the organization's marketing efforts.
Williams was chosen from 75 applicants. A human resources consultant was hired to help in the two-month process. Nine members from DTOP were involved, which included a representative from the village and the Oak Park Development Corporation.
Based on his on-the-job experiences, Williams agrees that his ability to work with a variety of people will serve him well in the new job. He wants to ensure DTOP staff continues an "all hands on deck" approach in reaching out to its businesses.
"I think I deal very well day-to-day with businesses. I'm very comfortable meeting people. I really enjoy being as present as possible," he said. "Certainly office time is important and it's a requirement of the job, but I think going out and actually speaking with merchants is just as important. I think that's something that is done here."
He also wants to continue to foster relationships with the other business districts and the Oak Park Development Corporation.
"We're here to support our immediate businesses, but we're also here to make sure the community as a whole is as great a community as it can possibly be," Williams said. "The only way to do that is to make sure all of our districts are working together, and that they are achieving their goals and enjoying economic success."
Just four days on the job — which felt like 30, he joked in an interview with Wednesday Journal during an interview last week — Williams mentioned both opportunities and challenges he's prepared to face. This includes diversifying the tenant base and getting vacant spaces filled.
"I think this is common in any downtown community, but something I'd like to help as best I can here is to continue to achieve a desirable tenant mix," he said. "There are some areas of downtown that kind of have a proliferation of restaurants, and then there are other parts that have almost all retail. And there are other parts that could just to be redeveloped a little bit."
It didn't take long on the job, however, to figure out who his bosses are after just a few tours around the district and a number of handshakes. Not knowing how business owners would react to the "new guy" in town, he was pleased with the warm welcome.
"What I learned about Oak Park is there are a lot of passionate business owners. I know that kind of sounds like a boilerplate answer, but truly it's very cool to walk into the business, and eight times out of 10 it's their business — they are actually there every day," he said. "And to hear how they got started, why they got started, what Downtown Oak Park means to them; they are very eager to share those stories with me. … That's very encouraging."