2019 was a good year in Forest Park. 2020 needs to be a better one.
The year just closed was a transformational one for our village. Long simmering tensions between Forest Park’s old guard – more white, more conservative – finally broke toward a younger, more diverse, more progressive vision of the village’s future.
We had seen it coming in the determined grassroots campaigns to wrest control of the Proviso Township high schools back from political cronies four years ago. We saw it in the never-give-up citizens campaign to vote video gaming out of town, a vote at least as much about transparent government as it was about video poker.
Local elections in 2019 were all about reinforcing that positive, welcoming, holding people to account approach to civic life. The bold incumbents won a second term at D209 high schools. A crowd of activists competed with new ideas for seats on the District 91 elementary school board. There were more good candidates than there were seats. Unheard of.
And in the village government election there was a well contested race for mayor between two former commissioners. Rory Hoskins soundly beat Chris Harris becoming the first black and a decidedly Democratic mayor.
Over its eight months in office, Hoskins and the new council have made solid headway on key – if low-hanging matters. Finally an anti-nepotism ordinance for a town which has always favored hiring family and friends. Dramatically more substantive appointments to village commissions which will provide genuine expertise in key areas such as police and fire, zoning, diversity and sustainability. This town has long needed a bench of active, capable leaders and the commissions are the place to groom them. Simple but necessary changes to zoning were made on both the commercial side and to offer a path for housing investment in a town where lax zoning over decades has created a weird mishmash of housing types. Imposing an added tax on local gasoline sales was a no-brainer. Hoskins has also made good on his promise to use his Democratic connections in Springfield to bring money home – doesn’t hurt that the Dems have now swept the capital and made cash available to municipalities.
Now it is 2020 and the challenges become tougher. Forest Park has got to figure out its economic future. Challenges abound on both Roosevelt Road and Madison Street. Being aggressive in seeking legalized pot sales makes sense. But filling empty big box stores, an underused car dealership and a rising number of retail vacancies will take a bigger vision.
Quick shout outs to the park district for its grand success launching the Roos Recreation Center, to the library for tackling its innovative remake, to the Forest Park Arts Alliance for blending fun and social justice, to the Diversity Commission for celebrating our gay culture and our growing Latinx community.
Finally, both school boards will either make or prepare to make their single most critical decisions. That is hiring new superintendents. Not good news that Jesse Rodriguez is leaving District 209. He has been outstanding and will be hard to match. The coming retirement of Louis Cavallo in D91 is an opportunity to build on success while also sharply shifting the vibe and the culture of this school district. Great things can happen if every constituency pulls the same direction.