Of the 140 surveys sent out to Forest Park business owners in January, Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, reported that a total of 53 were returned, a fairly high response rate.

The Chamber board met at the Park District Headquarters on Feb. 16 to analyze the results, which revealed the major concerns of business owners, along with action items they believe would help address their concerns.

Major challenges, according to respondents, are:

  • Economic uncertainty
  • Decline in customer spending
  • Customer traffic within the business
  • Customer traffic in the surrounding area
  • Expensive wages/benefits, including health insurance.

Minor challenges included marketing, insufficient parking, out-of-town competition, difficulty recruiting and retaining employees and access to business resources.

At the Feb. 16 meeting, Chamber members acknowledged they are still recovering from the Great Recession that began in 2007, which affected businesses nationwide. As expected, owners reported that their best sales came during the two-month period of November and December. Next best were the back-to-school months of September and October.

When people stroll down Madison Street, on first glance they may think that the majority of business are either retail or dining (including taverns). The statistics, however, show that the majority of businesses in town are in the service category, with about 40% of responses coming from that sector. Retail accounted for about 25% and dining around 15%. If you owned a bar or restaurant, you probably did better than a neighbor merchant, and accountants, lawyers, beauticians and financial advisors did best of all.

Asked what kind of actions could help their businesses, the top five responses included:

Attracting/retaining customers/clients

Events that increase foot traffic and are geared toward businesses

Advertising/marketing Madison Street as a destination

Advertising/marketing Forest Park and the business districts as a whole

A referrals program

In addition, respondents said the following would help: a welcome-neighbor program, learning how to effectively use social media, developing a strong brand/identity, effective networking, cross-marketing promo/events with complementary businesses, and regular business roundtables with peers.

At a Feb. 22 follow-up meeting, Chamber board members, along with consultant Bridget Lane, talked a lot about, in Yearbook co-owner Noel Eberline’s words, “putting Forest Park on the map.” They all noted how inviting Madison Street looked in December and how they would like to maintain that attractiveness throughout the year, with improvements such as banners on light poles and gateway installations at Harlem and Madison and other entry points, which, in one way or another, let people passing by know they are entering Forest Park.

Kokenes said, “The Chamber and the Mayor’s Economic Development Committee will be addressing the issues raised in the survey.”

One striking revelation from the survey is the longevity of some businesses. One has been in Forest Park for 110 years. Next in succession were 81, 56, 50, 40, and 39 years in business.