The board of Forest Park’s Chamber of Commerce recently gifted its executive director, Laurie Kokenes, with a getaway to Galena as a way of saying thank you for reaching the 30-year mark in her service to the chamber and to the village.
Rave reviews poured in from chamber members and the wider Forest Park community as they reflected on the meaning of her three decades of service.
Trying to make a go of a small business is often challenging. Chamber board member Dexter Cura explained how Kokenes supports owners like him. “Laurie is such an amazing asset to the chamber. She has really helped to spread the word about my Bespoke Flipbook photobooth business! Not only was I able to showcase my service at some chamber events, but there have been numerous posts and emails as well sent out to the community about my business.”
Mayor Rory Hoskins told a story illustrating one of the many ways Kokenes in particular and the Chamber in general partners with the village. “Laurie is always great to work with. What stands out to me is the Spring of 2020. When the village began interpreting Covid-19 guidelines for essential businesses and communicating our expectations to business owners and consumers, Laurie helped us to amplify our message. She continued to provide invaluable support during the period where we began encouraging residents to get vaccinations.”
“Now that our lives have returned to normal,” he said, “Laurie should be credited for the success of events like Casket Races or the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Laurie and her team make Forest Park shine!!!”
Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries and Sleuths and a past president of the Chamber, focused on the virtues Kokenes brings to her work. “Laurie is hardworking and loyal to the Chamber. Her creativity stands out for me as demonstrated by the annual Casket Races she imagined. It is so appropriate to Forest Park with all the cemeteries, it attracts all ages kids, adults, but mostly young adults/teenagers. . . . It’s amazing too because Laurie faced some opposition. But her idea helps the Chamber to appeal to the younger set which a Chamber and village need to not only survive but expand.”
Sal Stella, director of public works at the village, maybe touched on the core source of respect and affection so many people have for her. “As a laborer, and now a director, I have known Laurie for many years. She has nothing but love and dedication to this community. She is one of the good ones and it has always been a pleasure working with her.”
Kokenes said she “caught” her love for Forest Park from her dad, Bob Haeger who was the editor and publisher of the Forest Park Review before it was purchased by what is now Growing Community Media in the mid-1980s. He also served as the executive secretary of the Chamber before his daughter took that position over in 1992.
“My father loved Forest Park so much,” said Kokenes. “He ate, slept and breathed Forest Park.”
The last 30 years, she said, have been marked by both continuity and change.
What has always been true of Forest Park’s main business street, she said, is that it has been anchored by small businesses and people in town who supported them. “If you needed a stove,” she said, “you went to Trage Brothers. If you wanted a new dresser, you bought it at Krader Wolf. Sam Zussman had a men’s clothing store. You went to Peaslee’s hardware store to buy tools.”
What has changed is that back then “everyone was involved, not just in the Chamber but in fraternal/service organizations like Lions, Eagles and the Odd Fellows. The Chamber would hold an annual banquet at the Mar Lac House in Oak Park, and 300 people would be there. Everyone participated in everything.”
A lot more people are working from home these days, she added, and small businesses have to compete with big box stores which have moved into the area and online shopping.
The Chamber has also changed with the times. For example in 1998, a parallel organization called Mainstreet Redevelopment recognized that there were a lot of empty storefronts along Madison Street. Led by people like Art Jones, John Trage, Bill McKenzie, Carl Schwebl and Jerry Vainisi — names familiar to old timers here — took on the task of economic development that the Chamber had not focused on.
The two organizations had compatible objectives, said Kokenes, and they eventually merged. The result has been that the Chamber has become the marketing agent for the whole village.
Among the changes, of course, has been COVID. Two years ago Kokenes wrote to Chamber members, “Last year at this time, it’s doubtful any of us would have readily agreed to sign up for the challenges that 2020 would bring. … but we weren’t given a choice. However, what you chose to do was to tackle those challenges with determination, creativity and passion while also giving back to the community.”
In an interview last week she said, “During COVID we literally threw away our to do list and became the main information resource connector for whatever the village needed to tell business owners. We helped in a big way keeping our members informed. We went on webinars to help figure out grants, deadlines and things of that nature. We also gave our members a lot of one-on-one support.
Kokenes is heartened to see events returning like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade with an estimated 10,000 spectators packing the sidewalks along Madison Street. That’s one of the main goals of the Chamber, she said, to draw people to the street from out of town with events like the parade, casket races and the wine walks, so they can see the great businesses in town.
The 71-year-old Kokenes has no plans of retiring. Not only does she love her job, but she believes that the Chamber will continue to have a significant impact in the years to come.