Each of us uses our own individual lens to receive and interpret information. It is a tool, a defense mechanism to slay the onslaught of “news” coming at us daily.

Our first instinct is to ascribe a reason for whatever problem is presented.  If we know why, we know what to do about it. This process is faulty, however, when our lens is skewed or our information is incomplete.  Sound bite solutions help us mentally catalogue the information. Yet we lose the opportunity to learn with objectivity and empathy.

You may assume that I allude to conversations around “America To Me.”  That’s a timely example, but I am thinking about recent high-profile business closings.  Online chatter suggests people interpret these closings through their own lens of personal politics or preconceived notions of how business works – or doesn’t work.  Some go further, harshly judging those involved at a particularly vulnerable time. Why must there be someone to blame?

Here is the truth:  I do not know why these businesses closed.  Newspapers and social media cannot tell the whole story.  I do know that small business is hard. There are particular challenges in Oak Park not because we are “unfriendly” but simply because of costs and our community’s decisions to prioritize other important values over creating small business supports that might mitigate those costs.  

Revenue is not profit.  A visibly high-volume business still might not generate enough money to cover its costs.  Oak Park customers are tremendously supportive. Unfortunately, there aren’t always enough of them and they aren’t rich, either.

Rent is costlier here, due to scarcity, maintenance of old buildings and high taxes.

Labor costs are high.  That is not a political statement.  It simply means that Oak Park businesses have to generate additional revenue to cover costs.  If they cannot, they close.

Financing is unavailable.  When you run out of cash, it’s over.  Selling a struggling business is unlikely.  Entrepreneurs usually prefer to build new businesses than buy and fix marginal ones.

Sometimes businesses close.  While disappointing, that doesn’t mean the story has a villain.  Usually, it’s just math in a community where making the numbers work is hard.

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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...