Village President Anan Abu-Taleb and trustees are considering consolidation of various organizations that market Oak Park in an effort to save money and build a stronger marketing brand.
The topic was discussed at a village board meeting in July, where Abu-Taleb suggested that the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce work more closely with the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation [OPEDC] “under the same roof.”
Abu-Taleb now says he aims to consolidate Visit Oak Park, a nonprofit that promotes tourism in Oak Park and 20 other suburban communities, and OPEDC, a quasi-governmental organization that promotes economic development for the village. Putting the two organizations together and joining forces with the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce would save the village money and build a stronger brand, he said.
Abu-Taleb suggested that all three organizations would benefit from operating out of a shared office, but he did not say whether funding should be cut for Visit Oak Park or OPEDC. The village does not provide funding for the chamber of commerce, and Abu-Taleb said he does not “want to interfere” with the organization.
The village currently spends just over $200,000 annually funding Visit Oak Park. That is a combination of a pass through from the village’s local hotel/motel tax and money from the general fund.
As a regional tourism bureau, the group has additionally received about $457,000 a year from the state’s tourism budget. This year’s state funding has been held up due to the Illinois General Assembly’s inability to pass a state budget.
The organization also earned about $240,000 last year in revenue from the visitor’s center in downtown Oak Park and $40,000 in membership dues. Sara Barnett, the newly appointed president and chief executive officer, said Visit Oak Park takes in just under $1 million a year.
Abu-Taleb said in a recent interview that there is a “lack of measurable results” with Visit Oak Park, adding: “What have you done for me, the taxpayer, lately?”
He said the state’s inability to fund the organization also makes him question why the village would provide funds.
“If this [organization] didn’t exist, would I create it? The answer is no,” he said.
Trustee Glenn Brewer said in a telephone interview that the board is not considering cutting funding for Visit Oak Park, but added that the board has requested that they and other organizations “take a hard look at how they can become more self-sufficient and less reliant on taxpayer dollars.”
He agreed that a unified message would give taxpayers more bang for their buck, and consolidation of various marketing groups is “worth exploration.”
“Effective use of taxpayer dollars is at the heart of all of this,” he said.
Laura Thompson, chair of the Visit Oak Park board of directors, said in a telephone interview that the organization is “open to looking at lots of different ideas” and that the group already has begun a dialogue with the village and OPEDC on ways they might work more closely.
She said, however, that a complete merge with the economic development group would run afoul of Visit Oak Park’s mission and could jeopardize grant funds from the state.
“We are a certified regional tourism bureau for the state of Illinois and are eligible to receive their local tourism and convention bureau grants,” Thompson said. “So we’ve been receiving those grants for about 18 years [of the group’s 20 years in existence]. Under state statute we can’t merge with another organization.”
She noted that simply working out of the same office would not create a problem for state funding.
Thompson said she expects this topic to surface again on the Oak Park village board agenda as early as next week.
Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce executive director Cathy Yen said in an email that various organizations, including Downtown Oak Park and village hall’s Development Customer Services department, all have different missions but similar goals.
“It can be confusing to businesses when they don’t know where to go for help and support,” she said.
Combining some organizations is “an interesting approach,” Yen said.
“There may be some operational synergies,” she said in the email. “But, I believe the first step is to clearly outline the village’s expectations for each organization, even as our organizations work with our own boards to understand our stakeholders’ needs and expectations.”
The Chamber of Commerce currently shares office space on Oak Park Avenue with Wednesday Journal, Inc.