Bill Loutos, owner of Al’s Grill, gives a tour of his back patio and shows off the sliding gate large enough for an emergency vehicle to pass through. | Melissa Elsmo/Food editor

The village of Oak Park has had a terrible reputation for starting or owning a business. Endless paperwork. Tough codes. Months of waiting for approvals. Surly inspectors. Even more surly residents. High taxes. Why deal with all that when you could go to Forest Park and be welcomed with open arms?

I hoped those days were over after eight years of Anan Abu-Taleb’s helm as village president and his “open for business” priority. I heard that permits were going much faster, people in Village Hall were nicer, and you could see progress through Oak Park, such as downtown, Madison and Harrison streets.

Now we have Tammie Grossman, director of community and economic development at village hall, throwing the hammer down on Al’s Grill and owner Bill Loutos because he installed a fence around his parking lot to protect his COVID-spurred outdoor seating furniture.

Look, Loutos shouldn’t have put up a fence without a permit. But he shouldn’t have to wait three months for a permit for a fence, as he’s claimed the village told him (the outdoor dining season is only six months long at best!).

My issue here isn’t in the technicalities Grossman is using as her excuse, but in the ivory-tower mentality at village hall. You’ve got a business and community gathering place fighting for its life and improvising to the edge of the zoning. And instead of finding ways forward, the village finds ways to aggravate.

Can it get more obtuse than Grossman saying she emailed and called Bill, requesting he come to her to discuss it? How about going to Al’s to iron this out? (I looked it up on Google Maps and it’s a 5 minute drive, 9 minute bike ride from village hall.) Go there. Talk to Bill. Don’t tell him what can’t be done, listen to what he needs and then see if there’s a way to help him. Like putting his fence at the top of the permit review pile.

Then email the other businesses with temporary outdoor COVID accommodations, asking if it would help to extend. Would they like to have some type of permanent outdoor space post-COVID? Then talk to the board and see if they can make some accommodations, even temporary ones while it gets figured out. I mean, if village hall is going to cancel every business-boosting outdoor event for COVID despite an 80% vax rate and football stadiums coast-to-coast packed with 70,000+ people, find a way to make the village a hero, not a zero.

The village board is analyzing and over-analyzing how to spend millions in federal funds to help small businesses in town harmed by the COVID pandemic. We pay the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation around $500,000 in taxpayer money to market Oak Park as a good place for business and to facilitate new enterprises. 

At the same time, the village is hassling a business to the point it’s in the local media. The next time someone complains about tax breaks for Vantage or Pete’s, or empty storefronts/commercial lots, show them the article about Al’s.

Businesses aren’t the bad guys. They take tax burdens away from residents, create jobs and help create a vibrant community we want to live in. Empty lots and storefronts suck. I want a village hall that understands this and yes, safeguards us via zoning and permitting, but is a champion for business. Not a roadblock, but a facilitator. Maybe the next village president will get that and hire staff who share the vision.

Brian Souders is an Oak Park resident.

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