First reported 10/1/2009 4:15 p.m.

Threats of closure have been avoided, as a local hub for tourists in downtown Oak Park has found a new home.

A 19-story hotel and garage complex is planned for the corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue. And to build it, the developer needs to knock down the garage that has housed the Oak Park Visitors Center, 158 N. Forest Ave., since the late 1970s.

So the center, which sells Oak Park souvenirs and provides information to tourists, needed to find a new location. And it has settled on an empty storefront at 1010 Lake, formerly a cyber café.

Rich Carollo – president and CEO of the Oak Park Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which runs the center – says they plan to sign a four-year lease this week to move into the storefront, just a few doors east of the Lake Theatre. They’ll reassess their situation in three years and decide whether to sign a longer lease.

In July, the Visitors Bureau asked for assistance from the village to help pay for the new space, since the center has been operating rent-free for the past 30 years. The nonprofit was requesting $30,000 more in funding from the village, for a total funding level of $250,000 in 2010.

But with village hall in a precarious budget situation, most recently laying off five firefighters to make revenues meet expenses, Carollo decided against asking for more money. Instead, the bureau has laid off a staff member, while negotiating to pay less than the $6,000 per month in rent that was originally presented to the village.

“It became apparent to us that we just didn’t feel good about asking the village for any more assistance than they’ve given us in the past,” Carollo said. “And at that point we decided, if we wanted to make this happen, we had to reorganize ourselves.”

The 2,000-square-foot space is about the same size as the retail portion of the Visitors Center’s current location, but they’ll have less room for storage and offices. Carollo hopes to have the center reopen in its new space by Dec. 4.

Village President David Pope is glad to see the Visitors Center stay near the intersection of Lake and Forest, where Oak Park’s main commercial and historic districts meet, while also doing it without assistance from the village.

“This is obviously a challenging time for all communities,” he said. “And actions taken by the Visitors Center and other organizations that reduce the demand on the public pocketbook are obviously good for all concerned.”

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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