Tonya Hart, co-owner of Two Fish Art Glass and a leader of the business community on Madison Street, is resigning as the liaison for a grass-roots promotional organization and the more formal Chamber of Commerce and Development. Her resignation, announced in a letter sent recently to business leaders, could leave a gaping hole in the structure of the Madison Street Merchants group that may lead to the dissolution of M2, as the group is informally known.

There are no takers yet to fill the position, and participants in the locally regarded M2 are worried that the void will be permanent.

“I’m very sad and mostly anxious to see this organization end,” Connie Brown, co-owner of the Brown Cow ice cream parlor said. “None of us have the combined time and tough negotiation skills that our current group of leaders have had.”

Hart’s resignation is effective in March, according to the letter.

Because it is hard to prove a cause and effect relationship between M2’s campaign to promote Forest Park’s main business street and the economic boom Madison Street is now experiencing, most of the testimonials are anecdotal. The anecdotes, however, are myriad.

At the end of 2006 Brown reported that the ice cream parlor experienced a 42 percent increase in business that year. She said people would come into the Brown Cow holding M2 ads they had clipped from a Chicago shopping magazine.

“[M2’s marketing strategy] worked because we all made more money,” Brown said.

Fred Bryant, who owns Accents by Fred, reported that his business has increased in each of the four years that M2 has been promoting the village. Team Blonde owner Heidi Vance told the story of two women who drove all the way from a northern suburb to visit her store because they saw an M2 ad in Chicago Collections.

Business owner Tom Krenek saw foot traffic on the street increase in the week following an M2 ad in the Chicago Tribune. He added that when he asked one customer what town she came from, she answered, “Oklahoma.” It turns out that the concierge at her hotel found out about Forest Park’s main business district at an event for concierges where M2 members had set up a display. He was impressed and pointed the lady in the direction of Forest Park.

M2 began almost four years ago when Hart and her business partner at Two Fish, Cecelia Hardacker, hand-delivered letters to eight other Madison Street entrepreneurs to discuss the possibility of moving beyond the promotion of individual businesses to buying advertising together. They agreed to do some cooperative advertising in local newspapers around Summerfest and the Holiday Walk, and they liked the results.

A year and a half later Joe Locke, an investment advisor on Madison Street, proposed that M2 develop a brand for Forest Park with the help of graduate students from Northern Illinois University’s business school. The result was a logo and strategy to help establish brand recognition.

“Joe had the same idea we had,” Hart said. “That you can build it, but you have to promote it for people to come.”

Perhaps the most ambitious project for Madison Street Merchants was proposed by Hart two years ago when she presented a plan for members of M2 to spend $52,000 on advertising in one year. The budget breakdown for the first year called for $15,000 worth of metropolitan print ads and another $12,000 in radio spots.

The expense made an impact in more than one way. Hart was able to leverage more from each medium from whom she purchased ads.

“When you go to the Tribune or WXRT, for example, and you say ‘I have $10,000 to spend, give me a list of things you can do for me,’ they respond,” Hart said.

Besides obtaining discounted advertising rates, M2 increased awareness among the media that something was happening in Forest Park, what Hart calls “getting it on their radar screens.” The result was that newspapers and magazines began to run feature stories on Madison Street.

In the July 23, 2006, issue of the Chicago Tribune, the Home and Garden section contained a half-page spread on Madison Street with photos featuring Gallery Etcetera, Two Fish Art Glass, Todd and Holland Tea Merchants and Moss Modern Flowers. The accompanying headline was “Mad about Madison Street.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of M2’s run was the way they did it. Hardacker called it “socialist capitalism.” Another name might be “feminist entrepreneurship.” It included a decision making style based on every member having a voice, no one holding an office, working for consensus, not caring about who got the credit and totally lacking Robert’s Rules of Order. The whole thing was built on the foundation of trust and inclusiveness.

Regarding the big shoes which will be empty come March, they are now sitting in the Chamber of Commerce and Development’s office. Hart is hopeful that someone with new ideas and energy will fill them. At the moment, the chamber is responding to Hart’s resignation by generating several committees to do pick up where M2 left off, according to the chamber’s executive director, Laurie Kokenes.