A provocative headline is certainly attention-grabbing. But as the adage goes, all publicity is potentially useful. As incomplete and as misleading as it was, Deb Quantock McCarey’s article “Is the Arts District Dying,” [News, March 18] at least opens the door to a more balanced and accurate representation of the district’s condition. So here goes:
As a property owner and manager on Harrison Street for 28 years, I have had no problem leasing to commercial tenants, arts-related or otherwise. As a resident of the street as well, I have watched the transformation close up: 22 commercial spaces — formerly vacant, derelict, or residential — now support viable enterprises.
By my tenants’ own characterizations, the two newest arts-related shops in my buildings have both been doing surprisingly well for newbies. And finally, potential apartment renters specifically seek out the Arts District — a far cry from the “not east of Ridgeland” mantra of the ’80s and early ’90s.
The Kleronomos properties mentioned in the article are indeed a dead weight for us, but despite their ongoing foreclosure status, the district survives. After all, one of these buildings has been empty for 30 years. But the business district has forged on despite this reality. Their eventual return to vitality will only boost our fortunes further.
Precious few commercial districts of the hundreds in Chicagoland actually experience the intensity of foot traffic some shop owners believe is essential to propel them to success. Harrison has never been Broadway in Lakeview or Lake Street here in Oak Park, but even such high-traffic areas as these still can’t bail out a business that is seldom open or has products few shoppers want.
Although the three businesses Ms. McCarey primarily focused on are not current members, the Oak Park Arts District Business Association is one of the most active of Oak Park’s 12 districts in promoting its brand and is totally member-funded. We have operated for 22 consecutive years, all the while with an active board, a general meeting every month, three promotional events in addition to Third Fridays, and currently count 60% of all possible commercial enterprises in the area as members — the highest ratio of all the districts.
With the village as a willing partner, over the years our team has helped squash nascent gang activity, succeeded in liberalizing parking rules, contributed to last year’s streetscaping as well as this year’s imminent re-lighting of Harrison Street. During its seven years of existence, our district-wide “Art Camp” paid out over a quarter-million dollars to 25 local businesses and many OPRF student aids. Only Downtown Oak Park (supported by a “special service area” tax) can surpass our record. Our part-time marketing coordinator sends an attractive email blast to 3,000 addresses and our signature event, What’s Blooming on Harrison, turns a nice profit to support our promotional efforts. So much for our “dying” district!
All the artists interviewed by Ms. McCarey are top-notch and deserve more of the community’s support. We do indeed have businesses that can hold their own anywhere, and I feel lucky to have them on my home turf — and happy to be part of such a vital part of Oak Park.
Submitted by Mark Finger and the entire Oak Park Arts District Business Association Board.