The Oak Park Village Board agreed May 4 to establish an ad hoc small business taskforce through the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC). The Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce requested the creation of such a taskforce with the involvement of the OPEDC to more broadly support and assist local businesses experiencing significant hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as providing direction onto how to safely reopen.

Due to time sensitivity and privacy concerns, the board opted not to make the taskforce a citizen commission.

“The whole point is that the task force needs to be able to move quickly. It needs to be able to meet freely,” said Trustee Deno Andrews. “And then there’s other issues too. Businesses are sharing sensitive and private information about their businesses that they might not want public.”

Establishing a task force not associated with a village commission, Andrews believes, would make the sensitive information brought forth by businessowners not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Andrews also requested the taskforce have a membership representative of Oak Park’s racial diversity, as well as the diversity of business types in Oak Park — a goal shared by chamber personnel.

“I think the task force needs to have a very diverse voice so we can get the best understanding of what the needs are,” Andrews said.

Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb agreed with Andrews’ request for a highly inclusive taskforce membership, then kidded him. “That’s a great suggestion,” Abu-Taleb said. “I didn’t know you were capable of great suggestions once in a while.”

Trustee Jim Taglia said that whatever the board decided regarding the taskforce, the focus should center on businesses with limited government bureaucracy and a commitment to moving forward with alacrity.

“Timeliness is extremely important right now. There are businesses that need guidance and help. It’s beyond what the chamber can provide,” Taglia said. “A group with expertise is exactly what we need.”

That was a sentiment with which Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla agreed. She also noted the need for the taskforce to provide one centralized information hub for organizations.

Trustee Dan Moroney supported further collaboration between OPEDC and the chamber, saying the two organizations have worked well together.

OPEDC and the chamber worked together previously, just after the issuance of the initial shelter-in-place order, providing information and guidance on loan and grant applications for small businesses.

“Much of our work has been focused on immediate needs of small businesses,” said OPEDC Executive Director John Lynch in a phone call with Wednesday Journal. “That’s been great, but we all collectively need to start looking ahead and think about what we’re going to be doing to help businesses as things start to reopen.”

As the crisis continued and more businesses started to suffer dire financial straits, the need intensified for an established taskforce to address reopening issues.

“We’ve been advocating for this for about five weeks because we’d like to plan for when our businesses reopen, or for the ones that are already open so they can follow the proper rules and regulations to keep everyone safe,” said Mary Ann Bender, chamber president, prior to the May 4 meeting.

Bender said the chamber hopes to achieve a number of things through the taskforce, including broadening access to personal protection equipment (PPE), rules and regulations for reopening and staying open, as well as a guide on how to safely return to work, complete with guidelines on protection, cleaning and the potential need for temperature-taking.

The chamber also wants continued webinars and updated education on available grants and loans through the taskforce. Another goal is to have the taskforce provide a marketing plan, comparable to that which River Forest has provided its businesses.

“We’d like something similar in Oak Park where this taskforce is educating the public on why and how it’s safe to do business in Oak Park,” Bender said.

Her ideal taskforce includes the OPEDC members, a village trustee, someone from the village’s health department, stakeholders in the local business and nonprofit sectors, as well as two chamber representatives.

The board agreed during its May 4 meeting that a trustee presence would benefit the taskforce and named Deno Andrews chair, with Trustee Simone Boutet assisting the taskforce in a non-co-chair capacity.

The chamber also hopes the taskforce will create office hours during which business owners can call taskforce members for advice and guidance. As chamber president, Bender said she receives calls every week from anxious businessowners in need of guidance.

“This is a serious issue. Every week, different members of the community are telling me that their business may not survive this pandemic. People need help now,” Bender said. “We want these businesses in Oak Park, and we want them to be successful. It’s good for our community.”

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