Village trustees approved the reorganization of the Oak Park Development Corporation on Monday, rebranding the group as the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation and more than doubling its budget to $721,500.
The re-imagined economic development entity, tasked with bringing business and development to the village, is the culmination of several months of work by village trustees, who unanimous approved the change.
The new entity will establish a new board of directors to include the village president, a village trustee and the village manager as non-voting members. The operating agreement approved on Monday establishes a relationship between the village and OPEDC through August 2017, but village trustees retain the right to terminate the contract with 90 days’ notice.
The reorganization coincides with the consolidation of multiple business and housing related functions within village hall under a single leadership position.
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb, who advocated for the proposal, said that although some have questioned the large price tag attached to the change, reorganizing and properly funding the group would “position Oak Park to reach its potential.”
“We are going to fund you properly and also hold you accountable for an extraordinary outcome for our community,” he said.
The economic development group has been roundly criticized by village trustees over the last several months for not succeeding in its goal of bringing new business to the village.
The change was described as a “seismic moment” by Trustee Ray Johnson.
“I have been a skeptic and a critic of the Oak Park Development Corporation; tonight I am neither,” Johnson said. “I am optimistic. I am hopeful. I think that we are on the right path.”
Oak Park Economic Development Corporation Chairman Marty Noll said the group is weeks out from picking an interim executive director. The group missed the unofficial deadline set by Abu-Taleb at a meeting last month; he had called on them to have a temporary leader in place by the end of the month.
“We have been speaking seriously with a very appropriate candidate; that person is virtually on board,” Noll told trustees on Monday.
Abu-Taleb kept the heat on the new group, saying finding an interim executive director is critical.
“We don’t want to miss a week or two or three [of investment opportunities],” he said.
In addition to picking an interim executive director, the group also must form an executive committee, Noll said in an interview following the meeting.
Noll said consolidating the village’s economic development efforts within OPEDC, rather than dividing them between the organization and the village would help drive development.
“In the past we split the baby, and it was thought that it was the right way to do things for a lot of reasons,” Noll said. “And for a lot of practical reasons, it didn’t work as well as it could.”
The approval of the reorganization was praised by trustees and members of the public who attended the meeting, but one resident recommended that the new group cast a wider net when considering how it defines economic development.
Nile Wendorf, a critic of economic development in Oak Park, argued that if OPEDC’s economic development efforts begin and end with “finding the highest and best use of the underutilized properties, then we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Economic development also must focus on utilizing marketing through the Internet and smart phone technology.
“We have hundreds of people standing in the lobby at Madison Street Theater or Lake Theater most weekends waiting for their shows to begin,” he said, for example. “How can we use interactive touch screen LCD displays, QRC codes and a host of other technologies to inform and motivate those people that there is a lot going on in Oak Park?”