Yes to growth

Opinion: Columns

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In another sure-footed effort to ensure that his growth agenda for Oak Park takes hold, Village President Anan Abu-Taleb has effectively put the brakes on the hiring of a new administrator at village hall — director of community and economic development — until the broad and chronic dysfunction of Oak Park's economic development efforts can be dissected and diagnosed. Smart move.

There are a lot of fingers that can be pointed in assessing why Oak Park has been so slow and lackluster in its economic development efforts over the past 20 years, why even a rare economic success such as Whiteco is impossible to look at without cringing at its ugliness, why the village has perpetually overpaid for properties which then sit vacant by the half-decade and longer.

Blame the economy. Blame village boards for allowing process to overwhelm progress. Blame a too-intense focus on and a too-broad definition of historic preservation. Blame citizens who confused having a voice with having a veto.

But at root, blame village government for never — over decades we are talking — effectively sorting out the strategic pairing of the Oak Park Development Corporation and its own business-related staffing. Who is who? Who does what? Who is accountable? We pay close attention and damned if we can figure it out.

At its creation, in Oak Park's pioneering days of the early 1970s when integration and economic reinvestment were known to run in tandem, OPDC was a cutting-edge entity. There was a goal, there was major buy-in by local banks, and OPDC was thoroughly wired into the decision-making processes. That energy has long waned. OPDC must be thoroughly re-imagined by its community-based board, staffing changes seem inevitable, and the village board, which provides notable funding, must set out clear and widely-expanded expectations for OPDC to aggressively recruit business and development, to actively retain and expand business, to slice red tape and, in a word, to sell Oak Park.

At village hall, Manager Cara Pavlicek's concept of bringing all departments with a hand in development — planning, permitting, housing, business services — under one new chief has some merit. But the breadth of that concept demands hiring a bureaucrat when what Oak Park needs to hire is a pro-growth champion with a contact list as long as their arm. So instead of hiring another person to fix the chronically inefficient permitting and building standards department, it is time to give the current department head a short list of goals and a short time frame to fix the department. Or not.

The village board will meet next week in a special session to focus on how to finally create clarity, to settle on simple but ambitious goals, and to give direction on next and immediate steps. This is a key moment in Abu-Taleb's tenure and we stand with him.

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