Three Oak Park businesses have announced their departure for Madison Street in Forest Park, all expected to open there March 1.
In recent years, Oak Park has lost a generation of businesses that started in the village before expatriating themselves to Forest Park’s burgeoning Madison Street strip.
For causes of the trend, take your pick: some blame Oak Park village hall for taking too long issuing permits, others pin it on rising rents and property values paired with a stodgy economy. But there’s also the draw of Forest Park.
Recent additions such as Starbuck’s, 7231 Madison St., and caffe DeLuca, 7427 Madison St., have bourgied-up a strip once dominated by bars, dusty antique shops, and oddities such as the Military & Police Supply, 7351 Madison St., and Archery Custom Shop, 7240 Madison St.
Oak Park expats such as the stained glass shop Two Fish, 7401 Madison St., and jewelry maker Team Blonde, which has moved into the newly renovated corner spot on the southeast corner of Madison Street and Circle Avenue, have helped spruce up Madison, too.
Same goes for Madison Commons, the Focus Development/Taxman Corp.’s mixed-use building at 7231-55 Madison St.
That’s where Harrison Street’s All About Denim and Afkara Shoes are headed.
“I love what they’re doing with” Madison Street, said Myrza Santana, owner of All About Denim, 200 Harrison St. “I like that they’re focusing on smaller businesses.”
Santana and her friend and fellow shop owner Afkara Mason (Afkara’s Shoes, 140 Harrison St.) will split a space next to Run Chicago in the new building. The shops will have separate entrances with an interior door connecting the shops.
“My feeling is that Forest Park is a really great area right now,” Santana said. “I thought, eventually someone is going to open a clothing store and a shoe store” in Madison Commons, which would have hurt her and Mason’s businesses.
“I really love Harrison Street. I live three blocks away,” Mason said. Both shop owners live near the Harrison Arts District, where their businesses are located, and wanted to stay. They said they were near a deal to move into a space at the Filarski Building, 126-138 Harrison St., but permit delays gave them time to think twice about re-investing in Harrison.
“Harrison Street is not growing the way it should be,” Mason said. “There are just too many vacant buildings.”
Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone said that the absence of such delays is often cited by business owners as part of the appeal of Forest Park. “There’s very little red tape. We try to make it as welcoming as possible,” he said. “Business owners tell me they find it to be a little more friendly, from their first interaction with our building department.”
Calderone said that there is “no truth whatsoever” to rumors that he personally travels to Oak Park to recruit business owners to move to Madison St.
All About Denim has been open two years, and Afkara’s Shoes for 6 1/2 years. “I definitely have been committed to Harrison Street,” Mason said.
The loss of two more retailers will hit the district hard, Mason said. “I think it’ll be devastating because we’ve already lost a couple of retailers on the west end” of the district.
R.H. Hunting, who owns the building Afkara’s Shoes is in and operates his own business, Standing Wave Bodyworks, 144 Harrison St., thinks “devastating” might be going too far.
“It’s certainly not a good sign,” Hunting said. “The district is going through a transition. We’ve lost some momentum in the past year.”
Boulevard Fine Arts, 115 Oak Park Ave., owner David Manola hopes to open at 7416 Madison St. on March 1, too.
He bought the building that will house his business and provide him with revenue from Painted Board Studio, 7418 Madison St., and two rental apartments above.
Cook County records online show Manola paid $625,000 for the building. The previous owner paid $202,000, in 1997. Manola said the previous owner “did nothing to the building” while he owned it.
Manola said rising rental rates prompted him to look for a building to buy. Mortgage payments on the Forest Park space will be lower than rental rates on his Avenue space, which are approximately the same size, he said.
“Month after month you pay these landlords and they don’t even seem to appreciate it,” Manola said.
He did the same thing when rates for his second Boulevard Fine Arts location in Western Springs got too high: he bought a building in Clarendon Hills and moved the business there.
“Some months in small business you’re just paying your rent and employees,” Manola said. Making mortgage payments means that in those break-even months he’ll at least build equity in his properties”a sort of a small business retirement plan. And the value of his Clarendon Hills building has risen $200,000 in the two years he’s owned it, Manola said.
But he wasn’t eager to leave his hometown Oak Park.
“If I could have found a building in Oak Park, I would have considered that, too,” Manola said.
He looked at the Harrison Street Arts District, and had a deal to buy until the owner backed out. He, too, started to think twice about Harrison.
“Maybe it was fate,” Manola said.
Before deciding to move, Manola asked his top customers where they would like to see him move. “It was unanimous” that Madison Street in Forest Park was the favorite, he said.
“If you do things right, businesses pick up on that and word gets around,” said Calderone.
Boulevard Fine Arts will likely open March 1 in Forest Park, and Manola will operate both sites until his lease expires on the Avenue in August or September 2006.