With a 19-story hotel planned for the corner of Lake and Forest, a long-time village staple on Forest Avenue could face extinction.

The Oak Park Visitors Center, located at 158 N. Forest since the late 1970s in a village parking garage, needs a new home. The center hasn’t had to pay rent for the past 30 years. To find a new home in a privately owned space, they need help from the village.

That would come in the form of $30,000 more in funding annually from the village. The Visitors Center, which sells Oak Park souvenirs and provides information to tourists, is run by the non-profit Oak Park Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has a 2009 budget of $785,000, down from $950,000 last year thanks to state and local funding cuts.

Now Executive Director Rich
Carollo is asking Oak Park to restore funding to its 2001 level – $250,000, as it was when the bureau was first established in 1994.

As for a new location, the bureau is eyeing an empty storefront at 1010 Lake, which previously housed a cyber café. Carollo had hoped to come to the village later this year to ask for more money, but his hand was forced when another retailer started showing interest in the 2,000-square-foot space.

The bureau has held preliminary negotiations with the landlord about a possible rent rate of $6,000 per month or $30 per square foot. That would increase to $36 in 2012. The figure is still being negotiated, according to Carollo.

Some village trustees expressed hesitance about subsidizing the bureau’s rent, since the village has been forced to tighten its belt with less revenue streaming in.

“My gut feeling is that $30 in this economy is too much,” said Village President David Pope.

Carollo said relocation options for the Visitors Center are limited. They want to stay near the intersection of Lake and Forest. Without help, he said, one option would be to replace the center with unmanned kiosks in Downtown Oak Park and The Avenue business districts.

“In normal economic times, I don’t think there would be any serious question about whether we should have a visitors center in the same shape and form that it is now, but I think we would be remiss to not consider other options,” said Trustee Jon Hale.

Trustee Ray Johnson said the center is vital to Oak Park and the village should “seize this opportunity.”

The village may also explore helping the bureau with rent via the downtown tax-increment financing district. Village Attorney Ray Heise says that option is permissible under TIF laws.

Carollo hopes the village could supply the increased funding until 2012 when the lease would end. Another option, he said, would be for Oak Park to only provide it in 2010 and then re-evaluate the following year.

He hopes an increase in hotel tax revenues in the future, as well as increased sales at a better location, would help in later years. The center had about $176,000 in sales last year, while spending about $100,000 on payroll.

Oak Park plans to discuss the Visitors Center lease in its first meeting in September.

Join the discussion on social media!