He might have been born in River Forest, but at this point it seems fair to call Tom Gallagher an Oak Park native.
Living in the same house since 1978, where he and his wife raised their five children, Gallagher has made Oak Park his life’s business. He started working for the village in 1981 as a community development officer, served on the board of the Oak Park Development Corporation and its successor the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC,) and worked for years in Oak Park banking with First Bank of Oak Park and Community Bank. Along the way, he spent 10 years on the board of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.
When Community Bank was purchased by Byline Bank earlier this year, Gallagher moved across North Avenue from Oak Park to Old Second Bank in Galewood, where he says his practice retains the basis of community focus that has been his entire career.
As he transitioned to different banks and wore different local government hats, Gallagher remained focused on housing and economic development. In his continuing role working with the village through OPEDC, Gallagher thinks that the key to making relevant change is to focus on one’s home community, noting that economic development in the village continues to be intertwined with how people are able to move to and stay in the village as residents.
Old-timers vs. newcomers
In decades of working in and for the village, Gallagher has the advantage of seeing Oak Park make a lot of changes.
“Our world has changed such that people who are moving in now don’t have that institutional memory, and they don’t care to have that,” he said.
Gallagher notes that the forward-facing attitude can be effective for those who are new to Oak Park, but can be harder for long-time village residents.
“Walk on Lake or Marion or Oak Park Avenue, and it’s jammed, but people who just moved here before have no idea we used to have a mall here,” Gallagher said. “I think that’s OK. The longtime residents, some of them cherished the memory and some of them are glad to see it in the rearview mirror.”
As development focuses now on transit-oriented residential buildings, he says it can further divide more established and newer residents.
“With that [development] comes traffic and noise that people hate, but with that comes 2,000 new people who go out and shop and eat and buy a new pair of socks,” Gallagher said. “That’s economic development.”
There should be a meeting of the minds when it comes to real estate, he says, calling the buying and selling of houses in Oak Park its biggest industry. He notes that eventually homeowners will be looking to sell their homes.
“Who’s going to buy your house? Someone at the Vantage apartment building who has no kids now,” he said. “In a few years, they’ll have a baby and buy your house. These people are the bench.”
Development and your taxes
In a community that likes to talk about property taxes and where some have looked to newly built high-rises to defray some of those taxes, Gallagher says the real value of economic development is not in lowered real estate taxes. Instead, it is found in the sales taxes those high-rise residents pay.
“Every dollar you spend in a store, 1 percent of that goes to the village,” he said.
He adds that development is not the magic cure all for real estate taxes.
“We could build five more 20-story apartment buildings, and your taxes would not go down,” Gallagher said.
He notes that for residents concerned about property taxes, there is little to be done individually.
“What we can do as individuals is very, very little,” he said. “Remember that having good schools is the reason why most young families move here.”
No one wants to short the schools, he says, but citizens do want them to be fiscally responsible. This goes, too, for other government bodies. He notes that roughly 80 percent of costs are personnel costs, and says insisting that government bodies act responsibly might not reduce taxes, but might keep them from increasing so rapidly.
Gallagher says the recent flurry of building in Oak Park has been a positive change that the OPEDC has helped facilitate by serving as a go-between for developers with the village.
“Versus 10 years ago, there’s been a very big change here,” Gallagher said. “Now, developers know Oak Park is willing to do business.”
Looking forward, Gallagher says that nationally, developers are experiencing a downturn.
“It’s a nine-year cycle,” he said. “We’re in year 12 of a nine-year cycle.”
But locally, he says developers are continuing to look for projects. The development opportunities he sees on the horizon are smaller, infill projects.
“Look at North Avenue, Lyman and Madison,” Gallagher said. “They’re not necessarily little developments, but they are smaller-scale projects.”
As Oak Park looks toward continued development of parcels along Madison Street, Gallagher thinks the area is moving in the right direction, becoming more of a neighborhood and less of a drive through. He calls that a step in the right direction.
From his perspective, he says that 10 different $5 million deals are the same as one $50 million deal, but the map of the many, smaller deals looks better for the community.
“All of that needs a long rearview mirror, long-term,” Gallagher said. “I think a lot about what Oak Park will look like 40 years from now, not five years from now. I won’t be here, but it’s what we should think about.”