When people from around Metro Chicago hear the words Oak Park, they tend to think of Frank Lloyd Wright, or maybe Hemingway. If you say Gurnee, Great America or the factory outlet mall will come to mind. If you mention Cicero, the first name they think of is Betty Loren Maltese.

Like it or not, communities get branded. For example, ten years ago if you mentioned Forest Park to someone from Schaumberg, they might respond, “Oh, isn’t that the blue collar village next to Oak Park where everyone goes to drink?”

Since that “branding” is no longer completely accurate nor desirable, a group of six business people from Forest Park met last Friday with five Northern Illinois University students and their faculty coach from the College of Business’ Experiential Learning Center to map out a project in which the NIU students will produce a “brand” that Forest Park can use to market itself.

This process began as an idea in the head of Joe Locke, a financial advisor on Madison Street and an NIU alumnus. After hearing about this hands-on method of teaching business students, Locke called Joan Petros, an instructor in the College of Business, and set up an initial exploratory meeting. That gathering led to the “let’s get down to business” meeting last Friday.

Participants first discussed the purpose of the project. Heidi Vance from Team Blonde wanted the project to answer two questions: “What is our [i.e. the business community’s] message, and how do we get it out there?”

Tanya Hart from Two Fish Art Glass said, “I’d like to see Forest Park on the tips of peoples’ tongues. We’re looking to be a destination.”

Cecelia Hardacker, also from Two Fish, said that she wants “a focused plan for development, a marketing plan for the village as a whole, a proposal to acquire funds for the future projects as well as public relations program which promotes the village’s overall plan.”

Regarding the scope of the project, all in attendance agreed that not only the business people, but all segments of the community should be invited to participate in the branding process. Locke pointed out that to get the big box outfits like Wal-Mart on board to support this kind of project, they want a detailed plan down on paper to look at.

Everyone present also agreed that the brand would be promoted in not just the Metro Chicago Area but also throughout the Midwest.

Locke said that the costs for the NIU expenses would be covered by a grant. “If you can show us an effective approach, we’ll get the money to implement it,” Vance told the students.

The meeting closed with an agreement to gather again on October 14. The students will present their final proposal sometime during the first two weeks of December.

Both groups seemed to feel that this was a win-win situation, as the students were receiving valuable, real life experience in the business world and the Forest Park business community could potentially receive a conceptual plan that would unify and focus the community’s energy.