After decades of grants to retailers, OP eyes pros, cons of service subsidies

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Drew Carter

It's not about sales tax, said Steven Saraceno, owner of Purple Monkey Studios, the technology company at 124 S. Marion St. that has designed web sites for the village, park district, and Oak Park and River Forest High School.

"It's what's going to revitalize an area of the village," Saraceno said of Purple Monkey's request for village assistance in moving to a long-vacant site at Humphrey and North Avenue.

Staff from the village of Oak Park and the Oak Park Development Corporation (OPDC) are working on programs that would lend financial assistance to non-retail businesses such as Purple Monkey, while revitalizing strategic business areas such as North Avenue.

The village of Oak Park has created in recent years incentive programs and individual agreements to attract or retain businesses. Two notable retention agreements have been deals to keep Shepherd Motors (now Oak Park Volvo) and Foley-Rice Cadillac.

The difference, though, is that car dealerships are among the village's greatest earners of sales tax. Other business assistance programs are aimed at retail shops, which serve residents shopping needs while generating sales tax.

Village staff recommended at a Sept. 12 meeting that the village board designate Strategic Development Zones (SDZ), where two new incentive programs would be awarded. One would involve doubling the OPDC 2.5-percent interest subsidy on loans, representing a $30,000 annual savings to the business on a $600,000 loan, and a 10-year loan of up to $150,000, half of which would be forgiven after five years.

Board members received the proposals in two ways. Most supported the move to keep Purple Monkey local and figuring out a way to accomplish that, however trustees questioned specifics of the programs.

Residents would say that a non-retail business, such as Purple Monkey, that does much of its business outside the village, wouldn't benefit their quality of life as much as a retail shop would, Village President David Pope argued.

Pope did not like an idea to lower the percentage a business pays for a project to zero, allowing it to take the full amount on credit, saying businesses "ought to have some skin in the game."

He also did not like that a business could benefit as much as $250,000 from the proposed programs combined. "That's a whole lot of cash to direct to a single player," Pope said.

Pope preferred making targeted investments in streetscaping or other lasting improvements, or to issue a general offer to see what other types of businesses might want to relocate to the North Avenue spot.

Trustee Martha Brock said she wanted to see measurements of how other OPDC programs have helped businesses.

Trustee Ray Johnson reminded fellow trustees they have talked about the need for catalysts to spur development in some business areas, and that quality of life is different for everyone.

Saraceno said after the meeting that his roughly 35 employees would shop and eat near North Avenue, and that his business benefits the village by bringing customers and employees to Oak Park.

Trustee Robert Milstein wanted to see how the programs would affect the village's budget. "That's not to say this is a bad idea," Milstein said. "Is this the catalyst project? I haven't yet heard that."

Dan Finnegan, president of the North Avenue Business Association, said he preferred the idea of creating strategic zone incentives than helping an individual business to improve the business mix on the corridor.

"You can't just say, 'We want better tenants,'" Finnegan said.

Saraceno wants to stay in Oak Park. "I'm part of the community. My home is here and some of my employees are here," Saraceno said, adding that he's occasionally gotten jobs from having sponsored kids' sports teams in town.

However, he admitted that it probably wouldn't be "a huge loss to either" his company or the village if Purple Monkey had to move elsewhere.


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