It is a moving target trying to figure out just how painful 2009 will prove for Oak Park‘s village government. As Village Manager Tom Barwin said last week, the most recent revenue projections for sales tax and property transfer fees are even lower than earlier estimates. That’s what an international financial crisis exploding out of a housing bubble will do to you.

The village, currently building its 2009 budget, most recently turned its eye on costs for the business and development functions at village hall and at its partner agency, the Oak Park Development Corporation. A welter of specific cuts is being considered including reduced staffing and a smaller contribution to OPDC.

We’ll leave the details to the staff and the board but take this opportunity to suggest that Trustee Jon Hale had it right when he talked of taking this opportunity to “reinvent” how
Oak Park handles commercial development and the recruiting and retention of businesses.

Look at
Oak Park‘s record over the past decade, the best decade in memory to do deals, and it is pretty much an embarrassment. In general we underperformed the market in comparison with other older suburbs. And when you look at what we did manage to pull off, it is the bitterly controversial and rather astoundingly ugly Whiteco building that we are left to stare at. The rebuilding of downtown Oak Park-buying parcels, selling parcels, and for years without any plan in place-has been a botch.

You could argue that the governmental architects of Whiteco, the substandard Opera Club, et al, are long gone. New village board, new village manager, some new staff. And we see some progress. The

Madison Street
planning process was solid, the results to date discouraging. Discussions about Lake and Forest are more rational and productive. But it will be a challenge to get built in this grim economy.

And we continue, as we have over many years, to question if the village and OPDC are at all clear on their respective roles. Increasingly we question, particularly in tough times, if separate functions are necessary.

We believe local government has an active role in furthering commercial development. Refining that role, putting in place the pieces to execute that role are worth spending time on. In the short term the best plan may be to retrench.

Hopes and glories

Three things we’re happy to see in
Oak Park and River Forest:

Kudos to the village clerk’s staff at Oak Park Village Hall for their efforts, above and beyond, during the wave of early voting in town. Over 18 days of early voting, more than 8,200 people wound their way through village hall. They found a staff that was welcoming, knowledgeable and gracious. Democracy in action.

Another appealing restaurant-Briejo, pronounced BREE-jo (no third syllable, no h sound; trust us on this)-opened its doors Saturday on

Harrison Street
. Adding to the range of dining options in the Oak Park Arts District-and we now count five-is an essential step in establishing the district as a destination for visitors and for locals. And that is the path to creating visibility for the shops and galleries.

Our scoop Monday that John Rigas hopes to segue from his spot on the
Oak Park and River Forest High School board of education into the post of River Forest village president, simply adds to the intensity of next spring’s village election. Too often in the past, critical races in River Forest have been uncontested. This town will benefit from a thorough discussion of its complex issues.

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