Pat Zubak was recently named full-time executive director of Downtown Oak Park, the business association that promotes businesses downtown. Zubak took over in a part-time role last fall for Donna Ogdon-Chen, who moved to Tampa. We caught up with her recently to chat about downtown.

You came from Elmhurst?

Zubak: I grew up in Oak Park and now live right down the street. I walk to work every day.

I lived in Elmhurst 23 years, and worked there as executive director [of a similar downtown organization]. For a while?#34;five years?#34;I was president of the historical society, too. I volunteered specifically to help start a preservation effort. We were a Main Street downtown, and I was very involved in statewide Main Street efforts.

But preservation was never one of the issues that ever really made it up the ladder, although from what I understand now it’s finally being considered seriously.

[Development] was very similar [to Oak Park]?#34;a lot of in-fill development, there were townhouses, condos, higher density residential. Very controversial, same fears from residents about density, traffic and so on. But what happened in Elmhurst that’s happening here is, [people are moving downtown]. People who manage downtowns really want their downtowns to be vibrant and vital, and people living in the district bring that. They spend over twice as much annually as employees [working in the district].

What was your reaction to the downtown superblock steering committee process?

Zubak: At first I was very skeptical about the process?#34;skeptical first of all because there was no representation of Downtown Oak Park on the steering committee, which surprised me. But there were a lot of preservation-type people, so I thought this is only going to go in one direction. But I was surprised, and I think the committee did a great job, and I became a believer.

What do they say?#34;a camel is a horse designed by committee? I thought it was going to be a camel plan, and I thought it was, pretty much, a horse plan. The one glaring omission?#34;and this isn’t just Oak Park?#34;is that nobody’s asking the 20-somethings what they think.

Having two 20-somethings yourself, how do you get them involved?

Zubak: I think you have to go to them. They have definite opinions, but they’re never going to come to us. Maybe focus groups.

Mostly you can see their opinions by how they spend their money. They want nightlife, for sure. They want clothes that are affordable and trendy. They’re good about eating right; they’re much better about that than my generation. They want things that are fun and affordable.

Who’s responsible for that research? DTOP? The village?

Zubak: Both. We all are. We all have a significant investment in the village.

What do you see as being some of the most important things needed in downtown Oak Park now?

Zubak: We’ve got to decide what’s going to happen with the Colt building.

We need some action. We need to move ahead quickly. And that’s what we’re hearing from the businesses. [Regardless of the Colt building,] what about the rest of downtown? When is that going to come back on the radar screen?

We need a parking garage. The closing of the parking lot behind Bank One had a huge impact on downtown retailers.

You said national retailers like to come in packs. Is there a tipping point where once you have enough national retailers, it becomes easier to attract more?

Zubak: I imagine there is, and then it’s like Naperville. It gets to the point that you’re trying to balance. You still want to maintain a balance with local retailers, and that’s what Naperville is struggling with. [Downtowns are like malls]?#34;it’s the same thing. You have anchors in the corners with independents in between. [They feed off each other.]

What are some types of shops you think DTOP could use some of or more of?

Zubak: I think the obvious thing with all the new housing around here we could use some more decorative accessories, home improvement stores. Clothing stores, we need a shoe store. The more the better. It would be great to have a kitchen store, like a Williams-Sonoma.

What about nightlife? Do businesses stay open late enough now?

Zubak: We have the [Lake] theater, Marion Street Grille, some restaurants that stay open late. But you need a critical mass for stores to stay open late. People do shop in the evening, but you have to have … you know, opening your doors just isn’t enough. We need to turn that corner.

[Bar Louie, which has applied for a liquor license but has not signed a lease yet in the new RSC building on Lake Street]?#34;that’d be great. It’d be great for the downtown, it’d be great for the residents here, a place to come and hang out. They won’t have to get in their car and drive to Forest Park.

How much impact do you think the smoking ban will have on downtown?

Zubak: I think it’s a non-issue down here.

How much of an impact will RSC and Opera Club have on business downtown? How soon will an impact be seen?

Zubak: Well, there’ll be an impact as soon as the crane gets off Lake Street. But no big project is going to change anything. It’s incremental. That’s what I witnessed in Elmhurst. It’s all these things going on. It’s promotions, it’s streetscape. [In Elmhurst, infrastructure improvements encouraged building owners to make their own improvements.] One by one, the block beautified, and in turn attracted some really great businesses.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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