By Jean Lotus
"We don't want to blink and let opportunities pass us by."
Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone said he wants to help the village climb out of the Great Recession in a way that takes advantage of the experience and wisdom of local merchants who can agree on goals for the village's economic future.
Last week the mayor invited a group of 14 local business owners to an informal gathering in the basement of Village Hall to toss around the idea of starting an economic development commission.
"We didn't discuss specific ideas in terms of attracting new businesses," Calderone said. "Rather this first meeting was to make certain we all collectively share the same desire to want to build upon the success of Forest Park's history and continue to move the business community upward and forward."
Calderone said the idea was to take stock of the development efforts in the past (before the 2008 crash) and look at underlying trends shaping the future.
The group discussed the past work of the chamber of commerce and the Forest Park Main Street group, which worked together during the late 1990s and early 2000s to turn Madison Street into a shopping/dining destination. In the glory days before the economic reversal, groups of merchants created marketing campaigns to lure shoppers.
"We can always continue to do better on marketing the community to the outside world to attract shoppers to Forest Park," Calderone said.
Calderone mentioned the visionary local leaders who helped bring about the Madison Street recovery in the early 2000s. Without much fanfare, a group of local investors bought tired buildings along the street, remodeled, repurposed or tore them down for parking lots. The group, which consisted of Forest Park National Bank executive Don Offermann, former bank executive and school superintendent Art Jones and others called itself Windmill Enterprises, Inc. – a reference to Don Quixote's impossible dream.
"We bought up a number of underdeveloped properties," Offermann told the Review in 2012. "We cleaned them up, fixed them up and got the right tenants." Successes included rehabbing 7406 Madison, home of Moss Flowers, turning a meat packing plant into Molly Malone's and demolishing a neighboring two-flat for parking. The group also remodeled spaces now occupied by Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore, Paulson's Paint, Caffe de lucca, the Junction Café and Todd & Holland.
As the late Realtor Carl Schwebl, lifetime Forest Parker and former chamber president was sometimes heard to say, "Forest Park is small enough to fix, and always worth fixing."
That was in the past, but what's in the future?
Two pieces of village infrastructure are in the pipeline, Calderone said. The upcoming remodeling of Madison Street west of Desplaines Avenue partnering with River Forest will extend the updated appearance of Madison westward to the railroad tracks at Jackson Boulevard, Calderone said.
Secondly, the Roosevelt Road Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district will provide funds to update the village's southern business strip when a developer comes along.
"In our case we're trying to be more visionary knowing Roosevelt can ultimately be something much greater," Calderone said. "We'll be looking for a good base of sound retailers who may want to locate on Roosevelt Road."
Calderone said he was inspired in part by neighbors to the south and east.
"We want to better understand how the Berwyn Development Corporation works and Oak Park's [reorganized] Economic Development Corporation works," Calderone said.
The group tossed out the idea of hiring a young city planner, possibly a college intern from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"Our goal would be to bring somebody in from the university to further inform us and stimulate our thinking based on their areas of study."
A first project would be an inventory of all commercial space in the village, Calderone said. "We'd be looking for square footage, exact usage, whether the store was occupied, whether the business was owned or leased," he said.
Calderone also mentioned sending an emissary to an international shopping center convention held yearly in Las Vegas.
But Commissioner Chris Harris criticized the commission as too little too late.
"This town has been hurting for years and, in another example of leading from behind, the Mayor is just realizing this," Harris said in an email. "Being a leader is about being proactive not reacting once the situation reaches critical mass," he added.
David King, a commercial real estate broker and longtime Forest Parker, attended the meeting and characterized it as a good start and a way to build on the future.
"The mayor called the meeting to brainstorm how we can take the momentum to a further level," said King.
The meeting included Dan Watts and Erik Fjeldsta from Forest Park National Bank; Commissioner Mark Hosty; Mark Reckling from Grand Appliances; Bud Schwartzbach and Nirav Kumar (former and current owners of Famous Liquors); Dan Browne from Forest Insurance and McAdam Landsacping's Rob McAdam. Other merchants were invited, but couldn't attend, the mayor said.
When business people like where they are the word gets around, King said.
"The key business recruiters are your existing businesses," King said. "The kind of retailers you want in your community are going to visit and talk to the existing business owners," he added.
Calderone said the group will convene again May 7.
"Working with the comprehensive plan, we should get some consensus on what our goals are and whether we agree." The mayor said the group was not a closed secret cabinet, but that other business owners were welcome to join.
"It's business people serving pro-bono to further capitalize on the momentum already taking place," King said.