Back in August, Oak Parker Rich Carollo basically laid himself off, hoping to keep the local tourism agency that he was leading from going under. Two months later, "Visit Oak Park" still hasn't replaced him, but the organization proclaims its optimism about the future.
Formerly known as the Oak Park Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the agency relies on funding from the state each year. And amid its own budget problems, Illinois has been slow to pay its obligations to the bureau.
The state owes Visit Oak Park about $74,000, half of which should have been paid during the previous fiscal year, said Tom Lynch, a longtime employee who is currently acting as president and CEO. Their board will likely hold off on hiring Carollo's replacement, along with a sales position that was lost to layoffs this year, until the state starts paying on time again.
"We're still struggling," Lynch said. "The state is simply not paying up to date. I think that will play a roll in the board's decision on the timing of the hire."
With cuts to village and state funding in recent years, the bureau has seen its budget erode from $975,000 to under $700,000. But it's still "business as usual" there, according to Lynch, as the organization continues to market Oak Park to tourists in whatever fashion possible.
Visit Oak Park is requesting a $150,000 grant from the state for increased marketing efforts — putting posters at CTA stops, and ads in various print media. They're also wrapping up a complete redo of the agency's website, according to Lynch.
Before Carollo left, he said a motivation for his departure was a desire to get away from being "beholden to state money." Is it possible for Visit Oak Park to wean itself from volatile state funding?
Lynch says every tourism agency relies on state dollars to some degree. Visit Oak Park also serves 20 other communities in the area, and the hope is that they could one day receive locally collected hotel tax dollars from some of those communities.
"So the answer is, yes, we'll be dependent on the state in the foreseeable future," he said, later adding, "We're feeling good about the numbers, and we do show at this point a modest income projected for next year. We're definitely here to stay."
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