Forest Park’s Village Manager compares the comprehensive plan on which the village is now working to a roadmap. When local business owners were asked what route they wanted to take into the future, i.e. what they want included in the plan, their short answer was, “Keep on doing what we’re doing.”
When prodded to get more specific they contributed eight points regarding where they want the village to go and how to get there.
David King, a commercial realtor who lives in Forest Park, is encouraging everyone engaged in the process of creating the comprehensive plan to think big. He gave as an example the development now known as Madison Commons, the mixed use building on Madison Street with Starbuck’s on the east and the Original Pancake House on the west.
“Thirteen years ago,” he said, “that space had an animal hospital, a Brown’s Chicken and a parking lot. “If you go back to the 2000 comprehensive plan, we thought big. In a perfect world, we’d like to get rid of the Brown’s Chicken and see a nice new condo building there with retail space on the ground level. A couple years later when the present development was proposed, the way was paved to get zoning variances like height and set back, because it was in the comprehensive plan. If that were the only result of that plan, it was well worth doing.”
One big idea was suggested by Henry Laskowski and Paul McKenna who own Starship Restaurant and Catering on Madison Street. “One thing I think is lacking,” said McKenna, “is either a movie theater or a playhouse right on this main street like in Elmhurst and LaGrange. Those areas are really rockin’. The theaters draw hundreds of people a week and after the movie, people often stop at other businesses for a hot dog or coffee.”
The merchants interviewed talked a lot about maintaining the right balance between the village government helping or regulating and knowing when to get out of the way.
Everyone interviewed praised Mayor Calderone, the commissioners and Tim Gillian for their business friendly approach to governance. Mike Ciok, the manager of Grand Appliance and TV at 7440 Madison St., said that one of the big reasons Grand located its fourteenth store in Forest Park is that the village government here is pro-business. He gave as an example the enforcement of codes. In Crystal Lake, he said, one official would tell him that an installation was code compliant and another official told him to tear it out and replace it. “In Forest Park,” he said, “Everything is consistent, simple and straight forward.”
Zoning is an example of how village government can support the business community. David King said zoning can keep undesirable businesses like pawn shops out of town and encourage others like the many unique shops on Madison Street to relocate here. Laskowski and McKenna added that good zoning can create a healthy, synergistic mix of businesses which increase foot traffic and complement each other.
Laskowski is delighted that the portion of Madison Street west of Desplaines where Starship is located is going to be redone to be compatible with the section east of them. McKenna hopes that the makeover will include components like the pedestrian friendly crosswalks to the east which slow traffic down and create what he refers to as a “strolling boulevard” on his end of the street as well.
“We’ve been the poor sister on Madison Street for the 35 years we’ve been here, because we’re west of Deplaines,” said the owners of Starship. McKenna said he understands that the Village of Forest Park has been limited in making the streetscape west of Desplaines consistent with the portion to the east, because River Forest, which is on the north side of the street at that point, had until recently declined to spend the money on improvements. He gave kudos to Tim Gillian for negotiating with River Forest to make the receiving of the grant possible.
Laskowski would love to negotiate with River Forest to relocate Lutheran Child and Family Services, tear down their present facility and develop that whole block into a building similar to Madison Commons. Liz Axtel who owns the American Family Agency on Madison Street just west of Harlem, pointed out that inter-village negotiations are possible, citing Oak Park and Berwyn’s redevelopment into a thriving commercial area of the portion of Roosevelt Rd that runs along their border.
When asked to join the Chamber of Commerce, many business owners on Roosevelt decline with the explanation that the Chamber seems to be a Madison Street organization which does nothing for them.
Some merchants on Roosevelt Rd. recognize that the kind of revitalization which happened on Madison Street can’t happen in their area. Chris Germond who owns Harlem Art Gallery said that because Roosevelt Rd. is a four lane state highway, the traffic flows so fast that her business is virtually invisible. Having pedestrian friendly crosswalks like on Madison Street to increase foot traffic is unlikely, because of the necessity of going through what King calls “State of Illinois red tape” to make any changes. Germond has resigned herself to the reality that Roosevelt Rd. will never become “a cute business area” like on Madison Street What prospers on her street are malls and big box stores.
Jim Moccio has only four tables in the small dining area of Smokin’ M’s, a rib place which he runs with his son across Roosevelt Rd. from Ultra Foods. He’s OK with his business situation. He depends on takeout orders and catering for most of his business instead of foot traffic and isn’t too concerned about the visibility of his place because he depends on his customers spreading the word about his eatery. In his opinion the village government is doing a good job of attracting businesses to town.
McKenna said that the Forest Park National Bank has been and should continue to be a huge factor in stimulating the village’s prosperity. “Don Offerman, Jerry Vainisi,” he said, “those guys can be conservative, but they’ve always been supportive of businesses in town. They’re a good institution to have around.”
What no one can ultimately control is the spirit of a village. “What is pushing Forest Park into the future,” said Axtel, “is a lot of innovative people on Madison Street who are willing to try new things. We’re not only business friendly, we’re a little more fun.”
Laurie Kokenes, Executive Director of the Chamber said, “I really believe in the strength of the village as a whole. That strength comes from the cooperative spirit, great working relationship and dedication shared by everyone from elected officials, the Park District and community groups to residents and business owners. If anything holds us back it’s the economy. Look where we are despite any challenges that have been thrown our way. Imagine if we had unlimited resources!”
When asked how to plan for that kind of chemistry to assure that it is still here ten years into the future, business owners shook their heads and said they didn’t know.
“As in the last plan,” said Gillian, “the Steering Committee will have representatives from the business community, so we are sure that the voices of business are heard.”