Oak Park boasts eleven commercial neighborhoods outside of Downtown Oak Park, the professionally-managed business district in and around the Lake-Harlem-Marion area.  As we discussed in Part 2 of this series, Downtown Oak Park is defined by specific borders outlined in the Special Services Area ordinance created to fund the district’s management.  The other eleven are more loosely organized and are managed by volunteers.

Events, sidewalk sales, holiday décor, dissemination of information, data management and coordination of responses when the Village asks for input on a particular issue – all of this is done by volunteer business owners in the various districts.  Or, when there aren’t any volunteers, it doesn’t get done.

This volunteer structure presents opportunities and challenges.  We joke that in Oak Park we need to form a committee before we can do anything.  Our committee culture is organic and inclusive and infused with can-do spirit – everyone is welcome.  Districts with strong volunteer leaders, organized committees and an active corps of people with the time and energy to pitch-in can make a big difference for their commercial neighborhoods.

Effective business association boards have been successful in managing everything from a directory and website in the North Avenue Business Association to pulling off a major event like the recent Ernest Hemingway Birthday Block Party and 8k race in the Hemingway District.

Most districts charge businesses an annual membership fee, ranging from $50 to $200, depending on the district.  That fee could cover the costs of maintaining a website, twinkling lights on street poles in December or shared marketing costs – it is completely up to the district leadership how to charge, collect and spend the dues revenue. 

Notably, it is completely up to the business whether to belong and pay the membership fee.  Districts lack a “stick” when soliciting members, except to exclude a business name from a directory or event.  The eighty-twenty rule often holds, with the active 20 percent having a larger influence and voice simply because they are willing to show up and do the work.

Next week, we’ll talk about the role the business districts play in communication.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...