First reported 2/12/2010 2:28 p.m.

The River Forest village board’s Planning and Development Committee on Thursday night unanimously approved beginning the process of hiring a professional economic development consultant. The idea will be discussed by the full village board at its next regular meeting Monday, Feb. 22.

At the Thursday meeting, Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez also announced that state Sen. Don Harmon has introduced a bill allowing nonhome-rule municipalities like River Forest greater latitude in the use of sales tax revenue gained through referendum.

Trustee Cathy Adduci brought up the idea of retaining an economic development professional, asking, “Is it worth it for us to put a full court press on to help drive economic development.”

Her suggestion received an immediate and enthusiastic welcome from all at the table, including Chair Susan Conti and Trustee Steve Dudek.

With the TIF district expiring on Dec. 15, the village board is eager to identify ways and means of identifying and fostering development opportunities big and small.

“Get it for the next board meeting,” Dudek said of the consultant proposal. “We don’t have a lot of time to mess around. In a year we can do a lot of stuff with what’s there right now.”

Consultant John Houseal of Houseal Lavigne said, “We have a couple of people who do nothing but that.” He urged “a strategic approach rather than reactionary.”

TIF funding, he noted, can be used for projects of all scales. The goal, he said, is to facilitate development that the village deems desirable.

“The easier we can make the deal happen, the more likely it will happen,” said Houseal.

Talking about a recent inquiry about a possible restaurant in the TIF district, Conti said, “We need to know what TIF allows us to do and what it doesn’t, if we’re interested in going forward.”

Gutierrez said he’d conferred with village attorney Lance Malina regarding those legal parameters.

“The key thing is, you have to tie it to the purposes of the TIF district,” he said. “That’s really the corner stone of the decision, is how it relates to what the TIF plan is.”

George Parry, who observed the meeting, pointed out: “You’re competing with all the other villages around us who have economic development in place.” If River Forest doesn’t act soon to create its own pro-active economic development structure, Parry added, “we’re going to be left behind.”

Conti asked, “Can we advertise what spaces are available?”

Houseal replied, “Yes,” as Gutierrez dropped his head and smiled.

“It’s not the first time we’ve thought of it,” Houseal said. “We’ve thought about it strategically for months.”

Dudek began: “Let’s take a look at what’s there and from our perspective would be …”

Houseal finished: “Strategically worth pursuing,”

While any formal economic development effort this year would be focused on the TIF district and paid for with TIF funds, Houseal noted, “Anything that could be specifically crafted to benefit the TIF district will ancillarily benefit the [rest of] the village.”

Houseal called TIFs “one of the most powerful economic development tools in the state of Illinois.” Beyond the large-scale projects, he noted, small improvements funded by TIFs “can have a real lasting impact on the TIF (district).”

A good litmus test, he said, is “Does the improvement stay behind if the tenant leaves or the use changes?”

When the trustees brought up the possibility of using TIF dollars to deal with leasing vacancies in River Forest Town Center, Houseal said, “Sometimes it’s not going for the new thing, but a better version of what you have.”

Proposed bill would broaden uses of sales tax

At Thursday’s Planning and Development committee meeting, Gutierrez passed out copies of Senate Bill 3134, which was introduced Monday by state Sen. Don Harmon.

The proposed legislation would allow nonhome-rule municipalities to use increased sales tax revenues from referendum for “expenditures on municipal operations.” The current law allows such revenue to be used only for property tax relief or public infrastructure improvements.

“Hopefully this will get somebody to forward something similar in the House,” said Gutierrez. If passed and signed by the governor, the new law would expire on Dec. 31, 2015.

Gutierrez said there appears to be strong support from neighboring municipalities.

“I talked to a number of municipal conferences, including our own, the West Cook Municipal Conference and am getting very positive feedback about their support. They think this clearly would benefit many of their members,” Gutierrez said.

The issue will be further discussed at a Feb. 20 legislative breakfast hosted by the WCMC.

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