According to U.S. census data released last week, the Chicago metropolitan area — which encompasses the city and surrounding suburbs, including portions of Wisconsin and Indiana — was the only one of the country’s 10 largest metropolitan areas to register a dip in population between 2015 and 2016. 

According to a Chicago Tribune analysis of the data, the Chicago area lost 19,570 residents in 2016. In 2015, the region lost 11,324 people. The major reasons for leaving, given to reporters by dozens of former residents, were “high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate and the weather,” according to the recent Tribune article. 

During a March 24 meeting convened by Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st District) at Loyola University Chicago’s Niehoff School of Nursing in Maywood, about 60 business owners, local chamber of commerce heads, industry representatives, and elected officials gathered to talk about their own experiences doing business, and passing policy, in Chicago’s western suburbs. 

“We’re likely to lose a congressional seat and resources when they redraw the maps,” said Boykin, who called the meeting “a candid conversation” on the region’s business climate. “A lot of [the population loss] is being driven by bad economic policy.” 

Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb said the village has been able to grow — both in population and in local business activity — despite the region’s recent population decline by implementing an aggressive pro-development strategy.

Over the next several years, several thousand new residents are expected to flood into Oak Park’s downtown area, where high-rise developments have swiftly made their mark up and down Lake Street. According to prior Wednesday Journal reporting, village officials project that Oak Park will take in as much as $600 million in private investment, and nearly $25 million in property tax revenue, through 2025. 

“About four years ago in Oak Park, the population was 52,000 people,” the mayor said. “We were stuck and our economic development was literally non-existent. We had a symbolic chamber of commerce, processes that only led to more processes but not to more progress, a planning commission that took forever to make recommendations to the village board and we had a reputation as a place that was very difficult to do business in.” 

Abu-Taleb lauded the ability of Cathy Yen, executive director of the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce, to take the organization from “a symbolic one to one that is very, very effective,” and the evolution of the village’s Economic Development Corporation to a useful tool for vetting and attracting potential development. 

“We set a goal, a numerical value,” the mayor said. “We said we wanted to bring in $600 million of new investment over the next 10 years, increase our sales tax revenue by 50 percent and increase our population by 3,000 people. Right now, we’re two-thirds of the way to our goal.” 

The mayor conceded that the progress may have come too swiftly for some, adding that many residents are “now saying, ‘Slow down, it’s too much, we need organic development that happens from the roots and [according] to our values.'” 

Yen and other Oak Park business owners at the meeting, including Deno Andrews — the owner of Felony Frank’s in Oak Park and a candidate for village trustee — argued that Oak Park has not been entirely insulated from problems affecting the larger Chicago region. 

They cited the “bad economic policies” that Boykin referenced, including sales and property tax increases, particularly the penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages that the county board passed last November, as the most glaring obstacles to economic growth.

Boykin voted against the penny tax, as did commissioners Jeff Tobolski (16th) and the board’s only Republican, Sean Morrison (17th), both of whom were in attendance at the meeting. 

“While [local officials] can help attract the businesses in, it’s the property taxes that will make them fail,” said Yen. “So although the vacancy rate in Oak Park is really low, the turnover is high. We are feeling the spaces for sure, but the smaller end businesses can’t survive.” 

“I believe that property taxes are the single biggest threat, or barrier to entry, for businesses moving in,” said Andrews. 

“My small restaurant is 1,799 square feet and I pay about $25,000 a year in property taxes,” he said. “That’s essentially $500 a week. What’s sad is I pay more for property taxes than I pay any single employee on a weekly basis. I can’t pay my staff what I would like to pay them because I have another staff member — the government. That makes it very difficult.”

Yen cited a “back of the envelope” estimate of how much more product Andrews needs to sell in order to compete with fast food places in DuPage County. 

“For the same bottom line, he has to sell 20,000 more hot dogs than he would if he was 10 miles west on North Avenue,” she said. 

Abu-Taleb, himself a restaurant owner, said local governments need tax revenue to provide necessary services for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, the sick and the poor, that otherwise would not get the assistance they need. 

Most of Cook County’s budget, for instance, goes to health care and public safety expenditures. And Morrison pointed out that the majority of local property taxes are utilized to pay for public schools. 

“The services we provide are expensive and they’re not getting any cheaper,” Abu-Taleb said, adding that the state could stand to consolidate some of its over 7,400 taxing agencies — by far the highest number of any state in the country. “Many of these services can’t be provided by the private sector.”

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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