By Dan Haley
The purpose of Monday evening's sparsely attended Oak Park village board confab was for board members to hear the thoughts of citizens regarding economic development. The more immediate benefit, if they were listening, was for board members to hear each other's thoughts about economic development.
That's because something is up on this village board. The days of lockstep thinking about economic development being defined as massive brickscaping and cur-li-que light fixtures are over. The "if you build it, they will come" approach to streetscaping, seen on two glorious blocks of Marion Street, will not be easily repeated, and not just because the TIF funding model has gone poof.
There is dubiousness loose in the land and no amount of investment in greystone sidewalks is going to walk it back. Multiple board members Monday expressed restlessness not only with the approach to economic development but with their own board's approach to talking about economic development.
The most common question ordinary Oak Parkers ask her about development, said Trustee Colette Lueck, is "what is the role of the board in economic development?" And, she said, "We haven't talked about those issues at all."
Huh? Can that be? Well, it can be if you listen to recent board angst over the last-minute expectation that they'd OK a $100K consultant study to back a multimillion-dollar federal grant proposal that the board hadn't really talked about. It can be if you hear the lukewarm board response to a consultant's proposal for a massive streetscaping/road diet along Madison Street that is neither affordable nor specific to filling the gaping holes which sit just on the other side of the sidewalks along Madison.
Trustee Adam Salzman put his doubts in the form of a question Monday. "Is the best use of money for economic development on infrastructure investments or with specific owners and projects? What do other towns do?" He answered his own question later when he responded to an actual citizen comment about what efforts the village makes to recruit notable entertainment venues to the village.
"What are our strengths?" he asked. "Oak Park has cultural cache. We need to use that. ... I'm all in favor, on Madison especially, of making individual investments. The Madison Street Theater, number one."
A few other notable points: Berwyn has replaced Forest Park at the top of Oak Park's neighbor envy. A citizen rightly called out the Berwyn Development Corporation (BDC) as a far superior development model to Oak Park's mishmash approach. BDC combines the functions of the Oak Park Development Corporation, village business services and a chamber of commerce promotion and marketing effort under one leadership. Until Oak Park finally tackles the essential conflict between OPDC and the village government, there can't be accountability. Berwyn was also credited for its Roosevelt Road TIF and its "Berwyn Rising" marketing campaign.
Also telling was the odd and cautious dance between board and staff over who gets input on development and when. With a major proposal due shortly from staff and the OPDC on business recruitment, retention and marketing, Trustee Glenn Brewer asked at what point staff wanted board input. Beyond the politically correct answer that staff always awaits board input, it seems to me that this is some sort of odd crossroads. The TIF is done. The village has little in the way of other funding sources. There's no village manager. The economy is getting some better. There is an election one year from now. And the divide on the board over what exactly constitutes an economic development strategy is getting more pronounced.
Holding pattern — or leadership?