Forest Park officials took two steps toward strengthening the village’s business community at the May 23 village council meeting, voting unanimously to increase financial support to the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development and to hire an economic development consultant.

For the Chamber of Commerce, village officials agreed to increase annual funding support to $25,000, plus make a one-time contribution not to exceed $20,000 for a celebration and awareness campaign upon the completion of the Madison Street resurfacing project.

On the economic development front, village officials chose Business Districts Inc. of Evanston for a base rate of $3,000 per month for six months plus additional expenses (if any are incurred with separate approval by the village council). The agreement includes a 15-day termination clause.

The Chamber of Commerce funding created some discussion.

Commissioner Dan Novak, while stressing he was “all for” increasing financial support, expressed some concerns. In response to his question about reporting on how the funds will be spent, Chamber of Commerce Treasurer Erik Fjeldstad said the organization would “work with whomever the village designates” to provide regular financial reports.

Novak also questioned which Madison Street businesses are Chamber of Commerce members.

In response to Commissioner Rachell Entler’s question, Fjeldstad stated funds would be expended in Forest Park.

“There’s an expectation that we will receive information requested on an ongoing basis,” Mayor Anthony Calderone added.

Village Administrator Tim Gillian explained that the village has provided ongoing financial support to the Chamber of Commerce but the amounts have fluctuated over the years. 

Business Districts Inc. is no stranger to Forest Park, having done consulting work for the village dating back to 1995. Most recently, the firm created a strategic plan in 2014 and 2015. In addition, one of the firm’s principals, Bridget Lane, is a Forest Park resident, which Calderone identified as an incentive.

Lane, who said she looks forward to working with the village again, said her firm has basically guided village officials on business development and opportunities to attract from the larger Chicago market. The relationship has been “on and off” and not constant, she noted.

Compared to other municipalities that attract national retailers, she called Forest Park “the heart of entrepreneurship in the western suburbs, which is a great opportunity in today’s economy.”

Under the first phase of the new agreement, Business Districts Inc. will address development of vacant storefronts at Madison Commons on Madison Street between Elgin and Marengo avenues; the vacant car dealership at Roosevelt Road and Desplaines Avenue; and the Forest Park Plaza outlots and former K-Mart on Roosevelt Road east of Desplaines Avenue. The firm will use its developer contacts and market knowledge to research specific tenants and development possibilities while involving the village council and the village’s Economic Development Committee, an ad-hoc group of village businessmen formed in April 2014 that meets monthly with Calderone to discuss enhancing the village’s economy through business development. Village council involvement will include a 30-minute presentation documenting each opportunity.

After incorporating comments from the Economic Development Committee and the village council, Business Districts Inc. will prepare an opportunity memo and implementation action plan for each initiative intended to correct short-term problems and realize a long-term vision. In addition, the firm will create monthly work plans that combine the implementation action plan with the Business Economic Initiative completed last year. Those monthly plans will list planned outreach to existing and potential businesses and promotion activities coordinated with the Chamber of Commerce.

In the second phase, Business Districts Inc. will assist the village with press releases and a media kit that promotes economic development initiatives and assist in reviewing developer proposals. In addition, the firm will assist the village’s website coordinator and Chamber of Commerce in creating a template for economic development updates and a business opportunities page targeting available properties. Printable promotional materials will also be created.

Calderone called the agreement “definitely a step in the right direction,” noting the village was hiring a consultant instead of a full-time economic development director, as was previously considered.

“We determined that it would be more prudent to hire a consultant who would come equipped with the resources versus taking on a staff person with all the hard and soft costs associated with that role,” he said.

However, the full-time position is still a possibility and language in the agreement with Business Districts Inc. states the firm will review the job description for the position and mentor the director once hired.

Calderone also indicated there are some uncertainties about the agreement and warned of a “learning curve” in response to questions from Novak regarding the potential additional expenses and involvement of village staff with Business Districts Inc.

In response to another Novak question, Calderone said the village did not budget funds for the agreement.