The Business of Business Districts: Downtown Oak Park

Getting Down to Business with the OPRF Chamber

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By Cathy Yen

Executive Director OPRF Chamber of Commerce

"Downtown" commonly means the west Lake Street shopping area in Oak Park.  From Trader Joe's to the YMCA, Poor Phil's to Little Gem, The Gap to Tasty Dog, Maya Del Sol to Best Vacuum.  Called our "central business district," the area actually comprises three micro-districts:  Downtown Oak Park, Pleasant (Marion south of the tracks) and Hemingway (Lake and Oak Park Avenue).

Although the three sometimes coordinate marketing efforts, Pleasant and Hemingway are managed by volunteers while Downtown Oak Park (DTOP) is governed by special ordinance and hires a professional manangement company.  There are clear benefits and cost implications. 

How does it work?  In 1988 the Village created a "Special Service Area" (SSA), enabling it to tax DTOP property owners, and, by virtue of higher rents, the business tenants. Proceeds benefit the property owners as prescribed in the ordinance – in this case, the promotion of area business development, marketing and grounds maintenance.

If you are a business owner operating within the legally-defined boundaries of Downtown Oak Park, you have marketing support, terrific holiday décor, someone to shovel snow, beautiful landscaping and marquee events right outside your door, like Thursday Night Out and OakToberfest.  You also have higher rent to pay for these premier services.

Businesses located outside of DTOP rely on volunteers and discretionary contributions.  But, presumably they enjoy lower rent and can funnel savings into cooperative efforts with neighboring businesses.

The structure dates back to 1988, when the pedestrian mall at Lake and Harlem was dismantled.  The Village, with property owner support, created the SSA to enhance the vibrancy of the retail area.  Now headed by Max Austin-Williams, the management company is tremendously successful.  Its premier events attract thousands of people to the Village and DTOP year-round.  But it is important to recognize that the businesses themselves are paying for it, not the Village.

Residents might not notice, until they wonder why Holiday Rewards coupons are good north of the tracks on Marion but not south.  But to businesses, the distinctions between districts is another factor to consider when choosing where to set up shop.

Email: Twitter: @OPRFChamber

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