OPDC defends its record as talks begin on its future

? Development Corporation argues the village underutilizes resources offered by its 11 member banks.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Is it a capital-rich resource untapped by a village government that has chosen to be a singular driving force behind economic development? Or is it an aging agency whose business model has failed to keep pace with the times?

The Oak Park Development Corporation (OPDC) could be either?#34;or sit somewhere in between, depending on who you ask.

What's clear, however, is that the question has been a source of tension between the village board and OPDC over the last two years, manifested mostly by way of debates over village budget allocations.

Last week, the boards met face-to-face for the first time to discuss the future relationship between OPDC and village government. That future was far from clear following the meeting?#34;which proved more an opportunity for OPDC to explain its history in the village, and its ongoing role in Oak Park.

But it was a "good start," said Trustee Ray Johnson, who called for the joint meeting.  

"I believe reviewing history is always important, but I also certainly believe a focus on the future is a critical component of the discussion," he said. "No one is disputing there have been some good achievements in the past."

"But we've got other concerns on the front burner. And partnering to address those concerns is going to be one of the next steps," he added.

For Johnson, a front-burner concern is business retention, just one of the programs OPDC has operated since the late 1970s, when a group of local banks first got together to help spur economic growth.

But OPDC board members Thursday painted a broad picture of their agency and its potential. OPDC banks are "private sector economic problem-solvers in our village," said board chair Marty Noll, who is also president of Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest.

And a problem-solver the village may not often enough present problems to, he said.

"There are resources in this room that the board and village staff need to attack further. The resources here are underutilized," he said. "Every transaction we touch leverages village dollars."

OPDC offers an effective business-to-business model and an ability to tackle development in areas not immediately attractive to developers, members said. OPDC can also prepare sites for development faster?#34;and with less controversy?#34;than village government, they said. 

"There are a lot of people who will not talk to government who will talk to people at OPDC," said "at large" board member and former long-time village community relations director Sherlynn Reid.

"Sometimes it is appropriate for some other group to assemble property. We can do it in quick time," noted Noll.

Beyond the larger role of the organization, however, much of the village board's consternation has stemmed from concerns over what level of funding the OPDC receives, and with what return.

Mike Kelly, head of First Bank of Oak Park and an OPDC member, said the organization's dependence on government funding has been exaggerated. Rather than receiving 80 percent of its budget from the village, as previously reported, Kelly said it's roughly a 60-40 split, with the village providing $250,000 and OPDC footing $190,000.

Another number that was of great focus at the meeting, however, was the 100 loans OPDC has granted to businesses since 1980.

Kelly acknowledged that the figure "may not sound like a lot," but OPDC grants loans that must "meet a test."

"We bring something here that wouldn't happen otherwise," he said.

Over the years, OPDC has worked on many significant projects, including rehabbing the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. They were also early backers of restaurants.

However, the programs offered by OPDC have remained much the same since its inception. OPDC board members say programs have worked through many economic cycles. But some village board members said those long-time programs should be closely scrutinized.

"Nobody loves history more than I do. But you can't always put history in the bank and not look ahead," said Village President Joanne Trapani. "As we renew our programs, we have to look at a model based on today's economy, not look at the problems in the '80s."

However, some trustees argued the village should look more closely at using OPDC's resources.

"I'm deeply concerned that we don't use you sufficiently. Some of us forget the past. We don't put it into how it fits in the future," said Trustee Robert Milstein. "We are arrogant in our relationships?#34;as if we put in 80 percent, and we don't."

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