Make no small plans without small businesses


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According to the village website, Oak Park has 12 distinct business districts with more than 4,000 businesses, including over 75 restaurants, national and local retail stores and art galleries. This does not divide Oak Park businesses into large and small. It does not enumerate how many retail stores are national or local.

But it is obvious to anyone living or working here that there are many small, locally owned businesses in Oak Park. Their owners should participate in planning any development affecting them. It is only fair and reasonable to invite them. Involving them would also promote wiser planning for the whole village.

Among these businesses, small, locally owned retail stores have had great impact on the village's cultural and economic life. True, large corporate stores like Marshall Field and Company and The Fair made Oak Park a prime shopping destination for decades. But also present in these districts were a variety of fascinating small shops that made Oak Park's commercial sector unique and successful. They were personable, innovative and community-rooted. The diverse life of these businesses defined Oak Park's character as much as its residential and civic life did.

A plan for a commercial area can produce a skeleton for development, but its quality of life depends on the kinds of businesses and business owners and employees that flesh it out. Interactions between local owners and their employees with loyal customers and newcomers (including tourists) define communal cultural life as well as residents' activities.

Admittedly, the 21st century is very different from the last one, with a new economic landscape, shaped by exploding populations, rising land values and spiraling taxes. Still, entrepreneurs with a flair for merchandising, promotion and customer service can help shape a community's character?#34;and true image-?#34;as much as many planners do.

The fact that Robert Nicholas, father of the Westgate streetscape, was initially a small local business entrepreneur (in hardware), perhaps explains the street's successful expression of Oak Park's finest commercial and aesthetic values.

To make a plan work, the mix of business cultures fleshing it out must be considered as important as architecture, infrastructure and economics.

National franchises large or small selected for a shopping area only because they guarantee a profitable return could turn what is unique about the village into a bland extension of a nameless sterility that stunts the spirit in several directions from Oak Park?#34;and regrettably at places in the village itself.

Teamsters of yore would know they were in Oak Park when the saloons stopped and the steeples began. Without profaning this venerable saying, we might apply the idea behind it in a different way: Oak Park is where streetscapes, businesses, parks, organizations and residents of authentic and unique character begin.

If thinking, planning and building down these lines don't help morale, tourism and the economy, what would? Local pride, for example, benefits from knowing and being pleased with our "local identity." Without knowing and believing in the village, boosterism can readily become hucksterism; promotion, chauvinism. Selling Oak Park as it exists in a contrived plan or a manipulative marketing scheme may bring quantities of people and money, but destroy what is genuine about the village (including opportunities for authentic new developments)?#34;a hollow victory.

There are many individuals and organizations working to bring new businesses to Oak Park. Nothing said here is meant to disparage what is positive in their efforts. It is only intended to reinforce the need for village-wide respect for what small businesses here have done and can continue to do for us. Although the numbers of small local businesses would make it unwieldy to give every one a seat at the planning table, including them in some practicable way in planning the character and economy of the village is the least we can do.

Redd Griffin
Oak Park

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