"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us." Charles Dickens wasn't describing Oak Park in "A Tale Of Two Cities," but he could have been.
I have startling news for the throngs of customers shopping, the drivers snarled in traffic, and the prospering business on Lake Street?#34;downtown Oak Park is "dilapidated, deteriorated, and obsolete." Hard to believe, right?
By law, that's what our village board will need to conclude in order to renew the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district in downtown Oak Park. Even though allowing the TIF to lapse in downtown Oak Park would release millions of dollars in funding to the schools, parks, and other taxing districts, the village board seems poised to say no to needy partners.
The village board will need to concoct a tall tale, a doosy that flies in the face of what anyone walking, shopping, or driving on Lake Street can see, in order to renew the TIF. This whopper will contradict everything the village has bragged about in DTOP.
In the January 2004 issue of "Oak Park FYI" Village Manager Carl Swenson crowed that: "Today, Oak Park is a vibrant, healthy community with phenomenal investment occurring in our housing stock and a variety of opportunities for redevelopment in our business districts. As a result, the focus of village government has shifted away from simply attracting development to identifying what the community defines as the most appropriate development."
Does that sound like a cry for subsidies to bring in reluctant developers? Does that sound "dilapidated, deteriorated, and obsolete" to you?
In the December 2004 issue of "Oak Park FYI" village staff bragged to residents that: "The Downtown Business District has proven to be one of the village's strongest retail areas, with its combination of local specialty stores and well-known national chain outlets, as well as several restaurants and a multi-screen theater..." Not bad for a "dilapidated, deteriorated, and obsolete" business district.
I am a business person and a capitalist. The power of capital investment to create jobs, growth, and innovation are the cornerstone of our nation. On a local level, it is what makes the quality of life in Oak Park possible. A TIF can be good when an area cannot attract private investment. Using TIF incentives to get developers to do things they otherwise would not can be a net positive to the community. The village has many business districts that are challenged, and will continue to be challenged by investment issues. Downtown Oak Park just isn't one of them anymore. To pretend otherwise so that a few board members and some village employees can play Monopoly with our money is a disservice to the schools, parks, and citizens of this village.
The Madison Street business district (already TIF'ed), for example, has received little attention from village staff. Why? Because the board is busy shooting lay ups in downtown (where developers want to be anyway), rather than doing the more difficult work of attracting developers with TIF incentives to build on Madison.
Now that the Roosevelt Road study is complete, Oak Park will begin competing with Berwyn for developer dollars as that area begins to renew. Berwyn's side of the street is a TIF district, so developers will get TIF subsidies on that side. On the Oak Park side of the street (unless the village develops a strategy) they won't. Unfortunately, our village board is too busy writing multi-million checks to billionaires like Dean White on the Whiteco project, when the focus should be getting us competitive on Roosevelt Road.
Instead, our board will probably keep on telling its Tale Of Two Villages. One tale of the phenomenal investment and retail sales environment in DTOP, and another tale of a "deteriorated, dilapidated, and obsolete" DTOP so sorely lacking in private investment that it's financially sensible to deprive the schools and parks of the funds they sorely need.
Unless the direction of economic development in this village changes, there will be a second Tale of Two Villages. One tale on the northwest side of town, where we write big checks and do fancy developments, and another tale on the southeast side of town where the economy is left to atrophy.