Wednesday evening, District 91 Superintendent Louis Cavallo will give his annual “State of the Schools” address. Last week Dan Watts, president of Forest Park National Bank, gave the Review an unofficial “state of the Madison Street economy” interview.

Watts, a former village commissioner back in the 1990s, explained that how well the bank does is a function of how well the businesses in town are doing, so as a banker he really has to keep a finger on the pulse of Madison Street businesses. 

“I think the Forest Park economy is getting close to where we were at the peak [10 years ago], but there was a big trough. There’s no doubt about it.”

He said the trough, i.e. the tough times for businesses in the last decade, was caused by several factors. One was the big recession that took the air out of almost every sector of the economy, so businesses can justifiably blame the bad economy for declines in sales. 

“The economy played a huge role,” he said, “because disposable incomes changed considerably. Many people lost their jobs so people who were renting apartments sometimes couldn’t pay their rent, so landlords weren’t making money, so merchants weren’t selling as much merchandise. There was a trickle-down effect.”

That said, Watts pointed to other factors. “Business has to adapt to changing times. Most have. The better retailers are both online and have physical facilities. If you’re not doing that, then you’re going to have a challenge.”

“The younger generation,” he continued, “is shifting away from purchasing goods and services at brick-and-mortar locations and going more and more online and through smart phone apps. Very little currency trades hands these days.”

Watts and his brother own O’Sullivan’s. Fifteen years ago, he said, 70% of the tabs were paid in cash and 30% with credit cards. Now 75-80% is paid with plastic.

Watts thinks one reason Madison Street hasn’t come all the way back from the recession is that it has lost a bit of the direction it had 15 years ago. 

“My belief,” he said, “is that our direction is not trending the way we would like.” He is by no means in panic mode but does think the stakeholders need to recreate a sense of direction for the street.

Trial-and-error, he noted, is not the way to get there. One way to go would be to hire a consultant to help the village and Chamber of Commerce to determine precisely where they want to be, say, in the next five years. 

“To go out right away and hire someone to do economic development would not serve us well,” he reasoned, “because we don’t know exactly what we want right now. The best way to proceed would be to hire a consultant to help us discern in which direction we want to go before we invest a lot of money and energy.”

Acknowledging that Forest Park is competing against Oak Park, which gives its economic development corporation approximately $200,000 annually to market the village and attract new businesses, he said, “We’re not trying to be Oak Park. We’re trying to be different than Oak Park. With the retention of architecture along Madison Street and what the village officials have done with the lighting and the streetscaping, we have that old town feel.”

One thing Oak Park has that Forest Park doesn’t right now is what he called an “economic development function” within village government. 

“Whether that means an employee or an outsourced person,” he added, “I’m not sure.”

Watts leans toward outsourcing, partly because of how he views the nature of government. 

“The problem with hiring a full-time person in that role,” he explained, “is that it becomes like all government, an expandable item. It never stops. It just keeps growing. With an outside consultant, once the job is done, you can dial it back without an impact on somebody’s livelihood or family.”

Another reason he favors outsourcing is that he doesn’t think Madison Street will need a big stimulus all of the time — more like many of us need a jolt of caffeine in the morning to get us moving, but not all day long. 

“I don’t think you need economic development full throttle all of the time,” he said. “When you have vacancies, when you have challenges for existing businesses, you can dial it up. You can add resources, and then as you fill those vacancies and see more successes, you can dial it down.”

Watts made a distinction between stimulus and ongoing maintenance, saying the village can have a significant role in administering a stimulus but the Chamber of Commerce should take care of keeping the ball rolling. 

“Ongoing maintenance can be done through the Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “What the Chamber does best is making sure existing businesses are getting the resources and activities that help them flourish. Their job isn’t economic development.”

He believes it is in the best interest of the village to invest financially in economic development because that investment attracts and retains businesses, which increase tax dollars, which improve the quality of life on Madison Street and the rest of the village, which attracts new businesses. It’s kind of an upward spiral that government stimulates and the Chamber members maintain.

Regarding government’s role in economic development, Watts had nothing but praise for Mayor Calderone. 

“The mayor is fully an ally in the need for renewing Madison Street,” he said. “There isn’t anyone who knows Tony well who would say his heart isn’t with Forest Park.”

According to Watts, the need for periodic modifications in direction are normal for any business district. He recalled how Mayor Lorraine Popelka helped facilitate the move of Circle Theater to Madison Street in 1987. 

“It started a resurgence for this town,” he said. “I was on the board with Lorraine. It changed the night life here from a shot-and-beer kind of place, which it had been for years and years, to more of a dining destination. The upscale restaurants and projects like the Taxman development were all driven by people who showed an interest in the village like Art Jones and M2. You had a lot of first-time home buyers and professionals moving back from the city and they liked the housing stock here, which wasn’t as expensive as in Oak Park. They were attracted partly by the feel of Madison Street and they in turn spent money there.”

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