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Shoppers and diners who stick to the worn path along Lake Street in Oak Park might not be getting the whole picture. That's because another burgeoning business strip has been growing over the past few years — adding everything from a sushi spot to a neighborhood tap.
And the area called "Southtown" — on Oak Park Avenue, between Lexington and Van Buren — is likely to continue growing this summer, with entrepreneurs planning to open a women's clothing boutique and animal clinic there.
Still, business owners on South Oak Park Avenue look at the festivals, holiday decorations and street improvements in downtown Oak Park and wonder, why not us? So, they've started efforts recently to revive Southtown's dormant business association and bring even more life to the area.
"We've got a lot of up-and-coming new businesses that aren't getting as much as exposure," said Deza Pascual, who opened a coffee shop called Yova at 818 S. Oak Park Ave. last year. "Maybe people aren't that familiar with the south side. Maybe they think it's how it was a few years ago. We're getting semi-trendy, but I don't know if the entire Oak Park community is aware that we even exist."
Earlier this month, Yova hosted the first "Southtown Social," which was arranged by the owners of two other businesses. There, they invited village officials, along with other south side proprietors, to come talk about the future of the business district. Attendees included Village President David Pope and Clerk Teresa Powell.
The point of the get-together was to motivate businesses to get more involved in the community, according to organizer Lydia Villanueva-Soto, who owns Tan Travel, 964 S. Oak Park Ave. She wanted to help "jumpstart" Southtown's business association and move toward hosting sidewalk sales and street fairs.
The nascent group is trying to plan a back-to-school-themed festival for this September, and are holding another meeting on Thursday to brainstorm the idea. Villanueva-Soto wants to eventually ask the village for help in terms of landscaping and holiday lights, but first wants to determine whether there's commitment from other businesses to get involved.
"I just hope people get motivated and show their community that this is a strong part of Oak Park," she said. "Oak Park does not just consist of Lake Street and North Oak Park Avenue. There's some great little places to come and hang out over here. A lot more parking, too."
Maria Onesto Moran, who owns Green Home Experts, 823 S. Oak Park Ave., and is also leading the effort, thinks the association became dormant as shop owners were more focused inward on fighting through the recession. Things haven't necessarily gotten easier, but more businesses have opened and traffic has picked up.
"New business owners know that they need to do every single thing they can to get the word out about their business," she said. "A few years ago, it was difficult to find people who were willing to commit the energy to a business association. And with the new business owners here, that's changed."
Village Manager Tom Barwin called Southtown one of Oak Park's "best kept secrets" and said the village is willing to listen to any ideas they might have for freshening up and promoting the area.
"Every business district needs a little polish once in a while, a little refreshing, so people don't take it for granted, and there are affordable ways to go about that," Barwin said.
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