Kathleen Hanrahan may be Forest Park’s most important preservationist, yet simultaneously its most important progressive.
In looking at the renovated structures on Madison Street, residents can begin to understand how Hanrahan, the new assistant director of the Main Street Association in Forest Park, can occupy these seemingly opposing roles. Restaurants, pubs and shops have been restored with new facades, yet the buildings maintain the character of the original structure.
For Hanrahan, striking this balance represents one of her organization’s most pertinent responsibilities.
“Main Street is going to be a combination of elements,” Hanrahan said. “I think we definitely have become eclectic and of a different variety. It’s a process of keeping the old and interspersing the new through it.”
But the national Main Street organization has taken criticism in recent years for its rigid adherence to its trademarked four point approach. The clash comes when municipalities that pride themselves on progressive economic development strategies must work with an arguably old fashioned organization staffed by a largely untrained group of volunteers.
Hanrahan said that friction is absent in Forest Park because the role of volunteers is often limited to their specific interests.
“We try to ask the volunteer what they enjoy to do,” Hanrahan said. “So if you like taking pictures, you could (join Main Street’s photography department) and photograph an event. Volunteers have chosen to do the work. This is not a slave drive.”
The national Main Street organization that oversees all the locally run programs in the country prescribes the structure for each. The organization demands that local volunteers play a key role in spurring economic development.
“We are a non-for-profit organization, so we have to rely on volunteers,” Hanrahan said. “Volunteers step up for events and their amount (of participation) differs during the seasons.”
The more than 50 volunteers here in the village help with the display board, mailings, photography, and Main Street sponsored events. Volunteers must also serve on various committees and decide specifically what the organization’s role in the community will be.
Hanrahan’s role as the group’s only paid employee is to act on the recommendations made by the committees. Hanrahan signed on as the assistant director in the middle of August.
“I oversee and assist the Main Street committees with the implementation of activities, the planning sessions, and the communication between committees,” Hanrahan said.
Hanrahan is replacing Dorothy Gillian who has served the organization in various ways for 10 years. Gillian joined the board of directors in 1996 and later served as secretary and president. Twice, Gillian has served as Main Street’s acting executive director.
Four voting groups within each Main Street program focus on promotion, economic development, finance, and member services.
A business woman herself, Hanrahan is the former manager at the Caff De Luca in Forest Park. One of her biggest incentives for leaving Caff De Luca for Main Street was her desire to have a hand in furthering Forest Park’s development, she said.
Hanrahan and the Main Street board have set their sites on several projects since she joined the organization. One of the biggest priorities is to bring Main Street’s success to other neighborhoods.
“One of the goals is to extend the Main Street idea beyond Madison Street and incorporate the entire town of Forest Park,” Hanrahan said.
Talks are underway with municipal leaders in nearby River Forest to perhaps extend Main Street’s programs to the bordering neighborhoods there.
“Right now we are at a jumping off point,” Hanrahan said. “We’ve met with Frank Paris, president of River Forest. We’ve agreed that’s a goal of both of ours, so we will set up some meetings.”
Hanrahan said she could not comment on the possibility of redeveloping residential areas in Forest Park.
A number of village officials and commercial residents support and appreciate the association’s presence in Forest Park, including Mayor Anthony Calderone.
“Main Street has been an asset in the development of Forest Park,” Calderone said. “They are at the core, or about the core, of bringing businesses and residents together and fostering an improved climate in Forest Park through a variety of actions.”
Tim Shanahan, owner of Shanahan’s and charter member of Main Street shares that sentiment.
“I’m definitely glad I chose Main Street for what they accomplished,” Shanahan said. “Main Street has brought culture here and the awards they have won, like the governor’s award, have a force on the street.
“I do foresee Forest Park being as popular as Bucktown or LaGrange,” Shanahan said. “Forest Park has it all. It’s multi-dimensional now.”
Janet Todd of Todd and Holland Tea Merchants on Madison Street, agreed with Shanahan’s forecast. Todd has been a Madison Street tenant for about 18 months and a Main Street member for more than two years.
“The goal of Main Street is to make Forest Park a highlight of Chicago and to let people know what is here, which I think can happen,” Todd said.
Shanahan said it’s clear Main Street has played a positive role in Forest Park’s resurgence. However, with the village apparently on the right track, Shanahan said he wonders how the organization can continue to be viable.
Main Street Treasurer Joe Locke said he is confident Hanrahan can continue the program’s success.
“We’re very excited and appreciative that we have someone like Kathleen to help continue the development of Forest Park,” Locke said.