Property values in many cities and towns throughout the country have steadily declined in recent years, subsequent to the rippling effects of the subprime mortgage crisis. Although Forest Park has not been hit as hard as other places, it is certainly not immune to the contagion of a weak economy and suffering market.

Laurie Kokenes, president of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, is keenly aware of this. In her 19 years as chief, the organization has gone out of its way to welcome, accommodate, and even honor not only the businesses that invest in town, but also the homeowners who make improvements to their abodes. This was evidenced at the yearly Chamber meeting earlier this month when the organization distributed its 17th annual Pride Awards to residents who have made significant home improvements.

“The Pride Awards are presented to commercial and residential property owners who have shown pride in Forest Park by making a significant investment in their property,” Kokenes said. In the case of homeowners, these awards are given to celebrate their work, but also to encourage others to make similar investments.

“We wanted to say thank you for reinvesting in the community,” said Dave King, who owns a commercial real estate business and was a board member of the Main Street Redevelopment Association. Main Street, which created the Pride Awards, merged with the Chamber in 2008. The organization was created in the mid-’90s to jumpstart economic development in Forest Park.

“We’re all in this together. … We’re one community,” King said.

“Our mission is to support Forest Park as a whole,” Kokenes said. “With the Chamber-Main Street merge, we inherited residential involvement, and it’s been a real plus. There is a wealth of creativity, knowledge and energy out there, as well as a desire for community involvement. It’s a win-win for sure.”

Money spent on home improvement means curb appeal; it might also prompt neighbors to act similarly and eventually result in increased beautification of an overall area, which could mean higher property values.

“We look at things like the economic impact, the aesthetic impact, the innovative nature of it … and ripple effect, for sure,” Kokenes said.

Husband and wife Terry and Monika Nash received a resident’s Pride Award for renovations to their home at 847 Thomas St., work that Monica said was prompted by “the benefits of curb appeal” and the many updates to units on Madison Street over the years.

The Nashes made many improvements to their home, inside and outside, since moving to Forest Park from Denver in 2004. Exterior improvements include the addition of beige stucco, which replaced like-colored, but aging aluminum siding; new beige, stained front stairs; a re-sided, sand-white garage; a newly paved patio pathway in the backyard; and remodeled landscaping, to name just a few. Some of the interior work done includes a rehabbed second floor and a leveled basement.

“It was fun to strip all that stuff away,” said Monika, as she stood outside her home, discussing its renovation and the current state of the local housing market.

“It’s taking on an investment in the community,” she added, noting that the market has declined, but it “does not hurt” to invest in home improvement as a tactic to increase the home’s value at a later date, when the owner is ready to sell.

“While we wait the market out, why not enjoy the benefits?” she asked. Monika. She did not want to disclose the difference between the purchasing cost and the renovation’s price tag, but noted it was “significant.”

Dorothy Gillian, a local Realtor at RE/MAX, Inc., said that while home improvement does not guarantee a return, redoing, say, a bathroom or the kitchen, means that the house will probably sell at a greater cost and more easily than if the work had not been done.

“Those properties are the ones selling first [in the current market],” Gillian said.

Bill Plum, a Forest Park police officer, and his wife, Judy, have lived at 1103 Marengo Ave. since 1983. They, too, were given the nod for work done to their home over the years.

“I take pride in my property,” Plum said. “Since I’ve lived here, I’ve always put money into my home. … This is my investment.”

Plum’s deep-red brick home has new windows, a new roof, and much less shrubbery. Several years ago he also added a bedroom and a bathroom, and extended the backyard.

“Because of the last few years … people are putting more money into their homes,” Plum said, noting that many of his neighbors have done likewise, because of the down market. “Rather than go out and buy a home … they’re making their new home into what they might have bought.”

Four years ago, as home values began to decline, Plum put his house on the market to avoid losing even more of its worth if he didn’t. He said he thought about relocating to Sandwich, a small community in Northern Illinois, but couldn’t get anything near his asking price.

“I’m sure I lost between $100,000 and $150,000 over the last four or five years,” Plum said, noting that the house was appraised at roughly $450,000 in 2006.

This has happened throughout the village, though, he said. “I’ve seen homes that were listed at $200,000 to $250,000 sell for $100,000 to $125,000.”

Forest Park’s median property value over the last half-decade peaked at $315,000, according to figures provided by Gillian from the Multiple Listing Service, a real-estate data source. 

“Forest Park has declined 30 percent from the high point in 2007,” Gillian said by email. (As of May 13, 2011, the median price was $221,750).

“The market seems to have stabilized in Forest Park,” Gillian wrote, “[but] I think it will continue to stay pretty flat over the next couple of years.”

Gillian said Forest Park did suffer, but it weathered the storm well, considering the dire conditions of other cities and towns throughout the country. She said that might have to do with Forest Park’s close proximity and easy access to Chicago.

Plum acknowledged the down market, but also said owners of rental buildings who do not live in the village and/or do not keep up with their properties have the potential to bring down the value of an area.

“There’s a bunch of rental properties in town … because the property taxes are pretty low,” Plum said. “The absentee landlords … just don’t take care of the property like they should.”

Nonetheless, Plum has decided to stay put in the village he likened to a diamond in the rough.

“I love Forest Park. … This is my home and I try to keep up with it,” he said.

He also commended the Chamber for its attentiveness to the local economy. “It’s great what they do,” he said.