Here we are in the waning years of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) era in Oak Park and the choices are getting tougher and more immediate. While there are still millions in play, there are many more millions and tens of millions on wish lists for both the downtown TIF and the Madison Street TIF. The clock is ticking on each as officials consider ways to leverage the remaining bounty, perhaps by funding debt, and also spending down, or at least committing the reserves, before the gilded TIFs turn back into mere pumpkins.

While we agree the new Pleasant District looks lovely and twins well with its North Marion Street counterpart, it seems ever clearer that the default position on sinking the great majority of TIF funds into bricks and curlicue street lamps is coming into greater question — even among village trustees.

A week ago the village board heard a detailed presentation on an expensive ($17 mil) and ambitious (cutting traffic to two lanes) plan for Madison Street. Just Monday night, the board was expected to “receive” the plan while delaying decisions on it until early 2012. How the act of “receiving” a plan entails enough of a government stamp to “commit” the TIF funds before an end-of-year deadline confuses us. But we assume that any received plan is still subject to much more debate and definition than we have seen to date from village hall.

In this space last week, we said we’d like some of the TIF funding several officials seem ready to shower on a granite-and-bluestone makeover of Oak Park Avenue to be funneled into a vital commercial use: the empty building at Oak Park and South Boulevard.

This week we’d point to a highly specific proposal for a taste of TIF from a vital and going concern on Madison Street — the theater company formerly known as Village Players. We are not arguing the specific merits of the non-profit’s request for anywhere from $250,000 to $1.4 million in TIF dollars to fund its repair and — at the high number — its growth into a multi-venue arts center. Much more information is necessary before any decision could be made.

But we will heap praise on the idea of investing some portion of TIF dollars on specific projects that will reap both immediate activity and which have the absolute potential to cluster commerce around that flame.

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