Friends’ stories of dropping off their children at college reminds me of our experience leaving our daughter at The Ohio State University a few years ago. With over ten thousand freshmen coming in each year, they have it down.  Orientation, registration, move-in day – it is one big well-oiled, scarlet and gray machine.

More impressive is their laser-focus on retention.  Over 100 staff work in the “First Year Experience” department that promotes a smooth transition for the incoming class.  They provide supports including everything from mixers and club fairs to academic, financial and mental health counseling.  As a result, their freshmen retention rate hovers around 94%, significantly above the US average.

We talk a lot about college recruiting and admissions.  Most people look at graduation rates as well – how many students ultimately succeed.  Retention gets less attention.  What is the institution doing to create an environment and suite of services to help students succeed once they get there?

Coincidentally, we just learned that Oak Park has the lowest downtown vacancy rate in among nearby suburbs.  That is fantastic news.  Businesses want to be in our dense, downtown commercial districts.  They are filling storefronts just as soon as they become available.

This means we are doing a terrific job recruiting and bringing businesses in.  Kudos to OPEDC, our commercial brokers and Village Staff.  In college parlance, we are filling the class, thanks to the admissions and marketing departments.

But that is just the first step.  Retention – keeping them here – that’s a whole different deal.  Connecting the businesses to available resources, promoting a business-friendly environment, keeping businesses tuned in to what is going on, developing a sense of community, encouraging buy-in to our overall Village and creating excitement through events or marketing: these are elements of a successful business retention strategy.

As the Chamber, the business district associations and Village Staff develop their strategies and budgets for 2018, we recommend bigger investment in retention efforts.  Now that businesses are here, let’s do what we can to help businesses succeed and stay.  If that means they eventually “graduate” by increasing their investment or opening news stores, all the better.

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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...