Forest Park has enjoyed a lot of buzz over its retail and restaurant renaissance of the past decade. And that resurgence is real. You see it along Madison Street with its shops and eateries. You see it along Roosevelt Road where the comeback of the Forest Park Mall is the unsung success story of the village. (Go Ultra Foods!)
But the past two years have been a grinder for most retail business and the impact in Forest Park is clear. When you look at sales tax revenues, it’s measurable. As we report today, the village’s share of sales tax collected peaked in fiscal year 2007 at just shy of $5 million. In the fiscal year that closed out last week, Village Administrator Tim Gillian is pegging the take at $4.3 million.
That loss is greater than what was seen recently in neighboring Oak Park, which benefited from a new grocery store opening. The loss is less than what other similar suburban communities are suffering through. But, in any event, it translates into a lot of tough decisions at village hall, difficult days for business owners trying to stay afloat, property owners sitting on vacancies or slicing rents, and average folks sitting home eating hot dogs rather than dining out.
While most agree that we are reaching the bottom of this devastating recession, it also seems likely that the shopping habits of the shell-shocked will not, and should not, simply snap back to previous levels. We are facing a slow recovery and we are facing a changed reality that is going to necessitate some creative thinking. Here are a couple of street-level examples from our village.
The loss of Trage Bros. is significant. It was a notable contributor on sales taxes and its wide frontage is like a missing tooth on the street. Filling that space will take multiple entrepreneurs and attracting them may take different approaches and incentives than were necessary when the street was hot as can be a half-decade back. Beyond its private sector angels of that era who bought key buildings and patiently invested in them, Forest Park does not seemingly have a plan for recruitment, financing, retention. These are going to be tougher times. New tactics will be necessary.
The auto sector is a critical driver of local taxes. And, clearly, the auto business has been through extreme challenges. Forest Park officials were wise to make a sales tax sharing deal to retain Currie Motors as a Chevy franchise. That said, a gaping vacancy at Roosevelt and DesPlaines is about to open up as Currie moves its Chevrolet dealership down the street. Attracting a new auto dealership seems a long shot. What’s the plan for that corner?
Our point is not to be overly critical. The village and its business people deserve credit for holding on as well as they have through the misery of the past 24 months. But we are recovering slowly into a changed world. Adapting to those changes will be essential.