Restaurants, like Briejo (above), help attract shoppers to Harrison.File 2010/J. Geil

The Oak Park Arts District — along Harrison Street between Ridgeland and Austin — has come a long way over the past 20 years. It’s grown from a blighted stretch of land to a bustling commercial district, lined with trendy restaurants and art galleries.

And more is on the way, with an upscale Chinese restaurant and a performing arts theater slated to open in 2011. But despite the resurgence of the district in the past decade, business owners still have a laundry list of things they’d like to see happen on Harrison to make it the destination they envision.

Saturday was the Oak Park Arts District’s “Holiday Lights” festival, when the area is decked in luminaria and live entertainment is used to lure visitors to the street.

Val Camilletti, owner of Val’s halla Records, said business was steady but somewhat slow on Saturday, as her store wrestles with a declining record industry and a slumping economy. Since moving to the arts district in 2006, Camilletti has said the street would benefit from adding more retailers to bring in traffic during the day, as the plethora of new restaurants mostly bring night crowds. It’s difficult for galleries to stay open every day when things are so slow, she added.

“Those of us who are in retail, who are open all the time, can help that happen if we draw more and more people,” she said. “But retail is tough now for everybody.”

Janice Elkins, owner of Gallery Pink, who has been in the arts district for 10 years, said the more restaurants the better for the street. Despite being located near the Blue Line, she said foot traffic has been too slow. She worries that the new theater, located at Ridgeland and Harrison, may be too far down the street to create a ripple effect for businesses near Lombard.

Longtime property owner Chris Kleronomos is bringing one of those coveted new eateries to Harrison, with Yuan Restaurant slated to open in mid-2011 at 201 Harrison. The Chinese spot will join other newbies such as Briejo and Trattoria 225, which have opened in the past few years. He feels that things in the arts district are good but could be better, and is trying to add plantings and spruce up the facades of his empty buildings to attract more businesses. More lights and parking would help, too.

“We’re making progress though,” he said

Laura Maychruk, owner of the Buzz Café on Lombard thinks filling Kleronomos’ long-empty storefronts would go a long way toward making the district whole. The business association is self-funded, she said, and could always use help promoting itself. Still, the list of members has grown from 15 to more than 40 in the past decade. Art camps over this past summer have been a “lifesaver” for local galleries, she added.

“It’s much, much stronger than it’s ever been, but it’s still tough for us,” she said.

Those interviewed also expressed excitement about Open Door Repertory’s plans to unveil its theater in 2011. Lynn Kirsch, chair of the group’s board, said they’re still waiting for a letter from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, giving them the green light to start construction. The theater opening was delayed after Open Door discovered contaminated soil under the former convenience store.

“There’s isn’t a thing that anyone can do about it,” Kirsch said of the months-long wait for the letter. “I don’t think the president of the United States could do anything.”

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