Is OP unfriendly to small business?

The tale of several merchants who now call Forest Park home

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By DREW CARTER

After Laura Maychruk bought the building just south of her Buzz Cafe?#34;in which she lives and operates the coffee shop?#34;in April, turning the space into something profitable wasn't as easy as it could have been, she said.

Building code issues, navigating village hall and other obstacles put a few months between the time when she needed permits and when she got them.

"In Forest Park at that time, I could have had a permit within a week," said Maychruk adding that while she waited for permits she continued to pay property taxes on the Lombard Avenue building.

"That is business unfriendly," she said.

Her complaints are not the only ones. Small business owners in the village give other reasons to gripe: parking, lease rates and unreturned phone calls to name a few.

Together the problems account for at least a part of why a handful of former Oak Park small businesses have found new homes in nearby communities.

"I'm not ready to leave Oak Park," Maychruk said. "But [the village] made me think about it this summer."

Kate Braun, owner of the Giving Tree Early Learning Academy, moved her day care operation to Forest Park this year after a months-long battle for a special-use permit in Oak Park, a zoning requirement for all day care facilities in the village.

Braun cited research from Oak Park's Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education that showed that the need for day care in Oak Park far exceeded the supply. That zoning laws would target day care facilities, and thereby conflict with educational priorities, doesn't make sense, she said.

Braun eventually gave up and found a property in Forest Park. A demolition permit was issued the day after she submitted her business plan, she said.

But the happiness she's found in Forest Park isn't just about zoning and permits. The fire chief came to Giving Tree to review fire plans with her. That face-to-face, personal interaction, rather than going through a process, is something that sets the villages apart, Braun and other business owners say.

Oak Park Trustee Gus Kostopulos said, "It's the little things, personal things." He related a story about a new merchant on Madison Street in Forest Park who the mayor told to have plenty of Halloween candy ready to distribute. The merchant bought candy, but ran out. Later, the mayor came around with a box of candy to bail him out.

Another example he gave was from complaints he received from a new restaurant in Oak Park where customers were given $30 parking tickets for past-9 p.m. violations in a nearby village lot. The tickets issuing times were from before 9 p.m. until 9:04 p.m., Kostopulos said.

"I don't think we know how to deal with business people once they get here," he said.

FP attractiveness outweighs negativity

For Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries & Sleuths Book Store, Lake Street in Oak Park just wasn't a realistic option five years ago when he moved to Forest Park from a long-time location at Oak Park Avenue and Garfield. His business needed to be in an area with more foot traffic, but he couldn't afford the lease rates in Downtown Oak Park.

Two Fish Art Glass had also been located on Oak Park Avenue for several years. But owners Tonya Hart and Cecilia Hardecker needed certain things in a new space. But it wasn't just the space that sold them on Forest Park.

"It was obvious that they were working hard on the development" of Madison Street, Hart said. "We were courted in Forest Park, whereas in Oak Park we were not as much."

"Forest Park just made it much easier to do business here" with the cost of rent and ability to get permits, said Heidi Vance of Team Blonde Jewelry, also an Oak Park business expatriate. "It was just business friendly."

But now, Aleksy couldn't be lured back to Oak Park, he said. Recent Madison Street improvements, along with a new business association aimed at collective marketing have cemented his roots in Forest Park.

Vance agrees with the Giving Tree's Braun that doing business in the villages can be epitomized by person vs. process.

"People are nice in Forest Park. They treat you like they want to help you," she said, while Oak Park seems to "want to emulate a big city."

Is OP too friendly to businesses?

But a bigger village Oak Park is compared to Forest Park. And that makes all the difference, said Loretta Daly, Oak Park's business services manager.

"We're a little bit more challenged by that," said Daly, who attends all business association meetings in Oak Park to be able to interact with as many business owners as possible.

Daly said the village has always supported small businesses. The creation of her position "gives [business owners] a place to come when they have issues or concerns." The retail rehab grant program has been expanded, and is on a sliding scale to be more generous the smaller the business. Low-interest loans are available from the Oak Park Development Corporation.

At a  Jan. 10 village board study session, Daly will report on how business programs and services will be improved. A planned market mix study will look at which businesses in the village are national or local, and how many of each type are already there.

Creating programs to help small businesses be more profitable will enable them to pay higher  lease rates, she said.

Creating a written plan for how Oak Park wants to aid small businesses, and what the proper mix between national and local retailers should be, has been something Daly's been working to develop during her three years at village hall.

"Can we do better? Always. Are we looking at how we can continue to improve? Absolutely," Daly said.

But at least one Oak Park businessman thinks the village is already "very friendly" to businesses...too friendly, in fact.

"We are overly generous to our small businesses," said Paul Hamer, owner of the Frame Warehouse on Harrison Street. He said the village has its "pocketbook open and welcome hand out."

High taxes that make for high rents? A vast majority of that money goes to schools, supporting the community in which most clients and customers live, he said.

What Hamer takes issue with is the question of fairness. Deals for companies big (Whiteco) and small (Tasty Dog), while business friendly, were unfair, Hamer said.

When Caribou Coffee recently opened its Oak Park Avenue/Lake Street corner shop, 15-minute parking meters were installed nearby.

"Certainly Laura at the Buzz couldn't get that done," Hamer said. "I think that's outrageous."

In fact, John Curran, owner of Curran Glass Studio, said he tried repeatedly to get a loading zone on Oak Park Avenue near his and other South Oak Park businesses, but his phone calls were never returned.

"Nobody took me seriously on that," he said.

Curran is moving his shop to Berwyn, because he doesn't need a retail storefront but does need parking. When Two Fish moved out of his Oak Park Avenue storefront, he "ran out of gas," not being able to become too diversified in his business.

"It's getting harder and harder to run a small business," Curran said, with rising medical insurance and other costs that big businesses can restrain through volume.

He hopes he's not starting a trend by cashing in his Oak Park property for one on Ogden Avenue. He hopes small businesses will stay in Oak Park "so the town doesn't become like another dumb Schaumburg or something."

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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