The village of Oak Park’s Better Lake Street Rewards Program, designed to boost shopping during last year’s Lake Street reconstruction project, fell short of achieving the success it was expected to. 

“I honestly think 100 percent that program would have been a complete success had it not been for the pandemic,” said Shanon Williams, Downtown Oak Park (DTOP) executive director.

As DTOP carries out a similar holiday shopper reward program, the village board entered into a funding grant agreement Feb. 2, 2020 with DTOP in the amount of $120,000 to facilitate the Better Lake Street Rewards program.

“That was a huge investment of the village to commit to. And so, when they did, it was very exciting,” said Williams. “Then the pandemic hit just as we’re rolling it out.”

Out of the $120,000 allocated in village funding, DTOP only invoiced the village $46,345, according to Sean Keane, the village of Oak Park’s budget and revenue analyst. A portion of the invoiced amount went to covering administrative costs. The program, which 450 families participated in, gave out just $30,000 worth of rewards.

“It was breaking my heart that I had to give all their money back because that money was supposed to go right back into small independent businesses that needed it,” said Williams.

That program consisted of spending money in the three districts most affected by Lake Street reconstruction: Downtown Oak Park (DTOP), the Pleasant District and the Hemingway District. For spending $20 or more at five participating businesses, racking up a total of $200 or more, shoppers received a booklet of reward certificates worth $25 to spend in the designated districts. Shoppers were eligible to receive two booklets and most participants did, according to Williams.

When non-essential businesses were ordered to shut down in March due to COVID-19, DTOP tried to alter the program to keep it functioning. DTOP allowed people to mail their receipts, as well as accepted delivery and online receipts. 

“We tried really hard to make it very easy,” said Williams. “But we still didn’t see as many people as we probably would have, as I know we would have, had the pandemic not been in place.”

Oak Park’s community and economic development director Tammie Grossman believes people weren’t saving receipts as they normally would during the holiday shopping season.

Williams blames the pandemic entirely for how the Better Lake Street Rewards Program turned out. COVID-19 caused considerable communication problems among the participating districts. DTOP is funded by a special tax assessment levied on property owners in the district while the Hemingway and Pleasant districts are entirely run by volunteers.

“Because of the pandemic, I just don’t think there was enough structure for those districts to communicate what they needed to,” said Williams, adding that DTOP’s bylaws prevented it from carrying out communication in districts outside of their own. 

Williams tried to visit as many of the shops in the Pleasant and Hemingway districts to spread word of the program, but that strategy fell apart after the state-mandated closures of non-essential businesses.

“It just made the program really difficult and I was very disappointed because we worked so hard to get that program approved by the village,” said Williams. 

Williams told Wednesday Journal that DTOP did receive positive feedback about the program from the participating businesses and shoppers who understood how the program worked. 

“There was a lot of confusion in the program between the merchants and the consumers,” said Williams. 

Confusion stemmed from consumers not understanding that the Better Lake Street Rewards Program was entirely different and separate from DTOP’s holiday program.  

“It was really pertinent that we educate the consumer that this is three districts as a separate program to spread the wealth,” said Williams. “Because again, with the pandemic, all communication was kind of shut down.”

Despite their best efforts, Williams thinks many people did not get the necessary information and messaging needed to participate in the program. If they had, Williams believes it would have been “super easy” for more people to receive rewards booklets.

“We wanted to give out $100,000,” she said.

While not an outright success, Williams doesn’t view the Better Lake Street Rewards Program as a total failure either. 

“I feel like it was the best it could have been during a time where people were not leaving their home,” Williams said. “I feel it was successful under the circumstances.”

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