The public announcement that Donna Ogdon-Chen and Mike Chen will be leaving the Village of Oak Park in short order is devastating news for those business people in the village who have admired their graciousness, fortitude, effectiveness and expertise.
Donna, director of the Downtown Oak Park Association for over seven years, has transformed that organization from a non-descript, loose group into a highly organized, interactive advocate for the needs and concerns of the downtown business district. While the focus has primarily been retail, she has, nevertheless, always been cognizant of the non-retail property owners in the area and the businesses whose employees support those retailers. Her effective, hands-on skills will be sorely missed.
Mike has been the driving force for reasonable development in Oak Park in his position of development director. While a few, highly vocal critics of development have attempted to make him a “fall guy” for his staff’s enforcement of decisions made by the elected village board, they have not been able to tarnish his professionalism, temper his effective work habits, besmirch his integrity, lose his sense of humor or lessen the high regard of those developers, businessmen, property owners and citizens who have had the pleasure to interact with him.
The village he leaves is a far cry from the moribund village he entered 15 years ago, riddled with a ridiculous mall of closed shops and shackled minds. Indeed, our loss is Tampa’s gain.
What Downtown Oak Park?#34;indeed the village?#34;is left with is a host of fears and a cloudy future. From all news reports and cable watching, we villagers now must confront a nascent board whose apparent lust for power is outweighed only by its members’ foolishness.
We see how one board member, not called upon at a meeting in a timely fashion, jumps from the table and sullenly walk into a corner of the room; how another brazenly states that he cares not about the retail needs of businesses in the downtown district; how yet another berates the president of the downtown association, a major property owner in Oak Park and an elected spokesperson for a group whose members still pay an extra real estate tax assessment to the village for a (non-existent) mall, as a crybaby for urging a prompt decision on additional parking; how another takes up to a half page in a newspaper to explain to his perceived illiterate populace the meaning of his abstention vote; and how the board capriciously and arbitrarily overturns the recommendation of a veteran village commission to allow a special use so a technical school could occupy long empty offices in the Marshall Field’s building, thereby denying retailers in the area night traffic and sales and individuals the right to a place to learn and flourish.
I am not a retailer, but a large property owner in Downtown Oak Park who has enough business sense to know that good, well-placed, competitive retail drives the business success of a village. As also one of the largest employers in the village, I am keenly aware that preservation at all costs, residential at all costs, and temerity at all costs will not build a cohesive, substantial business district but instead will devastate it, and in its wake will lay off thousands of dollars in property taxes onto the already overburdened homeowner.
Investment will not continue to pour into a downtown area around which people cannot navigate, park, succeed, and prosper. And most certainly, investment will not be attracted where the norm at public meetings is non-civility by trustees with chips on their shoulders and vengeance in their heads.
My labor professor in law school was fond of repeating the adage, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
The first vestiges of that are the unfortunate escapes of the Chens. Stay tuned to see what follows.
Anthony R Shaker