What makes an "arts district" artsy? And will that bring consumers?

We had a little bit of drama this past week in the Oak Park business community when it came to light that Village Hall was moving forward with a consulting study for Harrison Street, aka the Oak Park Arts District.

What might have been a routine contract on the consent agenda turned into an ad hoc discussion at the Board table about what is needed to invest in and reinvigorate the Arts District and who is best situated to do the work.  The business leaders’ oft-spoken admonitions of “no one told us” and “not another consultant” and “if you have that kind of money let us decide how to use it” were shared in person and online.

In fairness to the Village, the proposed “study” was really an update to the outdated urban planning blueprint – focused on the existing built environment, traffic / transportation and land use.  The project was not meant to be a branding study, marketing how-to or brainstorming session.  And, the proposal itself resulted from 2016 collaborative work with the district and government. 

Nevertheless, the preponderance of studies with timelines, workplans, powerpoint decks and nice budgets comes at a time when all of our commercial areas are racing to keep up with consumer demands for how best to live, work and shop. 

The suburban mall era is past.  Today we find experience trumps consumerism.  People want walkable, quaint-but-urban town squares with public art, good lighting, outdoor dining, music, brewpubs, a mix of national brands and interesting independents alongside enough greenspace for man’s best friend and picnics.

How do we get there?  Where do you start? With twelve “business districts” or unique concentrated commercial areas in Oak Park and three in River Forest, it is a difficult nut to crack.  We are proud to say the Village of Oak Park has asked the Chamber of Commerce to work directly local Oak Park business districts to address the issues.

We are not out of town consultants.  We are boots-on-the-ground local business people, residents and customers.  We encourage everyone interested in working with us to improve our local commercial areas to join in.  Give us a call.

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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...