Oak Park Village Manager Kevin Jackson has proposed a significant restructuring of village staff with the impending retirement of department director Tammie Grossman, who oversees the village’s commercial development and housing, as well as parking and permitting. Breaking up Grossman’s vast division, currently called the Development Customer Services Department, is logical but complicated – and if approved, Jackson’s plan puts the future of a major village partner agency at risk.
In a proposal discussed with Oak Park’s village board on May 8, village funding of the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation would be “paused.” Its role in attracting new development and retaining businesses would be shifted to within village hall. It is unclear if the 49-year-old OPEDC would survive with other funding sources or if it would be closed down.
The plan was developed by the village manager with the input and assistance of Kira Tchang, its human resources director. Of the more logical aspects, the plan splits Grossman’s department into two with the creation of the Neighborhood Services Department. That new department will focus solely on housing and neighborhood-based education, engagement and support. The Development Customer Services Department will be renamed Development Services and focus exclusively on development and building. Unrelated to Grossman’s department but part of the overall restructuring plan is to integrate the Community Relations Department into the village’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion. The plan also calls for the formation of a transportation engineering division.
The restructuring includes creating four new full-time positions, the reallocation of funding for one full-time position and the elimination of one budgeted full-time position. The plan is budget-neutral, meaning the village would rearrange existing funds to offset economic impacts without creating additional burden on taxpayers. To do this, village staff have recommended pausing funding for OPEDC, which is the more complicated part of the plan.
OPEDC is solely funded by the Village of Oak Park in a yearly contract valued at $571,500, so pausing that funding could result in the economic development corporation having to seek alternative funding sources or possibly a dissolution of the entire agency. The amount budgeted for the agency has stayed the same for multiple years, with the exception of 2021, when the contract was lessened to $521,500; the full amount was reinstated the following year. Those funds go toward compensating the corporation’s three staff members: its executive director, its economic development manager and its office manager.
The economic development corporation works on behalf of and with the village to facilitate commercial real estate projects, bring in new investment and support and attract small businesses. The partnership has been successful, especially in recent years, with the construction of several high-rise apartment complexes and the resurgence of economic growth on Madison Street.
John Lynch, OPEDC executive director, announced last month that he was leaving the agency in May to return to the private sector, but the agency’s payroll still includes Eric Mazelis and Allie Moore, the economic development manager and office manager, respectively. If the entire restructuring plan gets approved, the village must give the OPEDC and its board of directors a notice of 90 days.
“That notice has not been given yet and our understanding is that there is still more discussion to be had regarding the proposed reorganization,” said Mazelis.
That discussion may be had sooner than later. Jackson told Wednesday Journal the village board is tentatively scheduled to vote on the restructuring plan in full at its May 22 meeting. The village board previously discussed reorganization May 8, where Trustee Cory Wesley expressed hesitation in fully defunding the partner agency.
Wesley gave up his position as OPEDC board president to serve on the village board as the village president and Trustee Susan Buchanan were already serving on the partner agency’s board of directors. If Wesley remained on the OPEDC board, that would have violated the Open Meetings Act. The village president and trustee are not voting members, nor is the village manager, who also sits on the OPEDC board.
With the departure of Lynch, the potential pause in funding puts the voting members of the OPEDC board in limbo regarding finding a new executive director. The voting members are all private citizens who volunteer their time to the organization. Whether the board of directors moves forward with the hiring process is undetermined at present moment. The ultimate decision will be impacted by how the village board votes on the restructuring plan, according to Aaron Joseph, OPEDC board president.
“There is no perfect solution because we’re losing talent from both organizations,” said Joseph. “It’s not something you can rush into.”
If the restructuring plan goes through, the village would internalize the economic development duties currently entrusted to its partner agency. The reasoning behind doing so, according to Jackson, is the restructuring presents an opportunity to “formulate a new strategy and vision” for Oak Park economic development.
“We still want to recruit new businesses based upon a defined strategy that matches and complements our community,” the village manager said.
As for whether he believes OPEDC has run its course, Jackson said he could not “conclusively say.” He did, however, acknowledge that the village now has fewer available parcels of land in need of developing, which is a large part of what the economic development corporation does in its present form.
“The current model, I think was more consistent with previous conditions,” the village manager said.
Should the village board approve the restructuring plan, the OPEDC board of directors will have to determine the agency’s course of action. They could try to acquire new sources of funding or they could move to dissolve the organization. A dissolution would leave the agency’s economic development manager, its office manager and its executive director, if Lynch is replaced, without a job. It’s too early to say what will become of the economic development corporation, according to its board president.
“It’s a question that’s out of my hands,” said Joseph. “The point of the OPEDC is to assist the village in attracting development, so we’re an extension and we’re here to help.”