From hugely profitable car dealerships to Robinson's Ribs, the village has in recent years offered financial incentives to a variety of businesses to either keep them from leaving Oak Park or encourage them to open a franchise in a less desirable location. The one thing all these businesses have had in common, however, is that they generate sales tax revenue, some of which ultimately returns to village coffers.
Now, for the first time, the village board will consider signing a business retention agreement with a non-sales tax generating business, the software development and website design firm of Purple Monkey Studios.
The studio has outgrown its existing space, at Pleasant and Marion streets, said owner Steve Saraceno. The business has more than 33 full-time employees.
At the urging of the Oak Park Development Corporation (OPDC), Saraceno said he's willing to relocate to a long-vacant building at 6027 North Ave. Not including the cost of buying the building, Saraceno said his planned renovation of the property would cost roughly $750,000.
OPDC has said it's willing to offer Saraceno a low-interest loan to help fund some of the work, as well as provide grant dollars to Purple Monkey for work on ADA-compliant bathrooms and fašade improvements. In addition to the support from OPDC, Saraceno said he'd likely need at least $200,000 from the village to make the move worthwhile. The business has looked at properties in other suburbs, including Countryside and Forest Park, he said.
At a village study session last week, Saraceno and OPDC said though the business doesn't generate sales tax, the move may help spur other development on the North Avenue corridor. The property is located near a recently renovated branch of First Bank of Oak Park.
"This would help anchor a gateway. We'd like to retain the payroll of a number of profitable employees," said OPDC representative Sara Rickert.
"Our goal is to keep our business in Oak Park," said Saraceno. "We are a growing organization. We have the ability, and the reputation, to grow and do a lot more work."
If the board were to proceed with signing an agreement with Purple Monkey, the village would be setting a precedent, said Loretta Daly, village business services manager.
"We need to look carefully at how this will be crafted," she said.
At the end of the meeting, the board agreed to gather more information on the matter, though some trustees expressed reservations about setting the precedent.
"This is a situation where a business has a high payroll, and does an exceptional job. Yet, the question is the role of government in supporting individual businesses," said Trustee Robert Milstein. "I ask that if we do this, we be prepared to look at a very innovative program."
"I'm willing to look at this, but I'm not crazy about it. I have an odd peculiarity in that I actually believe in the market. My concern is that this may move us deeper into the role of subsidizing the private sector more in general," Village President David Pope said. "When the information comes back, it may turn me around."
Trustee Ray Johnson said even if the Purple Monkey doesn't generate sales tax, putting a new tenant in a vacant building would boost property taxes. Daly said the building's owner has been holding out for a quality tenant.
"I'd like to see us look at this deeper. This is a gateway, and we need to think about the strategic piece of this," Johnson said. "This could be creative enough for me to be very open to this."
Trustee Greg Marsey said he'd be willing to look at helping with the renovation, but he's "not sure about acquisition."
Trustees Geoff Baker and Elizabeth Brady were also optimistic about the opportunity.
"We gave $4 million to Whiteco. It may be that every small business in the community comes with hands out," Baker said. "This may be the first case, but that's how programs get started."
"I place a great deal of importance on retaining Purple Monkey. Let's look at some really creative opportunities for financing that property," Brady said.