Madison Street in Forest Park. File photo

It was much like people looking in the mirror, noticing that their hair had turned gray and asking themselves, “When did that happen?”

Independently, Laurie Kokenes, director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, and Sal Stella, the village’s public works director, both noticed that although many businesses had given their storefronts facelifts, Madison Street’s own streetscape was looking old and tired after decades of incremental wear and tear.

Stella began the makeover story by saying, “About a month or so ago, I was contacted by Laurie from the Chamber of Commerce.  She had explained how she had heard some internal talk about talking to the village in trying to upgrade some of the aesthetics on Madison Street. ”

“I told Laurie,” he added, “that it was amazing that she wanted to pursue this because I have looked at the infrastructure and street furniture for years and been wanting to give it a makeover. It was on my hit list of things to accomplish as director, but funding had always been an issue, especially during the pandemic.”

Kokenes said Stella’s concern about funding seemed to be answered by the federal government’s pandemic era American Rescue Plan (ARPA) which made $350 billion available to state, local and tribal governments beginning in April 2022.

“When the village began discussing plans for use of ARPA funds,” she said, “they shared with the chamber some of the items in their preliminary plan. We had several discussions with our board, then we reached out to Mayor (Rory) Hoskins to share our ideas. Rory was very open to hearing what we had to say, and following the conversation, he connected us with Sal Stella and Ryan Nero (Commissioner of Streets and Public Improvement).”

Stella, Nero and Kokenes walked the street together to see firsthand what improvements were needed.  “That walk,” Kokenes said, “made it clear that there was a good deal of work to be done along with some regular upkeep.”

Following the walk, Stella and Nero did some brainstorming and, along with Kokenes, came up with an initial plan which included painting the light poles, changing out the street furniture — including trash receptacles, bike racks and benches — power washing the sidewalks and limestone planter caps, sealcoating the satellite parking lots and restriping them.

 Stella worked with Jim Amelio from Christopher Burke Engineering, the village’s contracted engineering firm, to get “pricing on an array of improvements that could be done to the streetscape.  The idea of pricing went to the board and they liked it.”

Although money made available by ARPA was the initial stimulus for engaging in the project, money ultimately came from funding made available through the village’s own infrastructure plan.

Moses Amidei, village administrator, explained the details of the funding. 

“On this plan, a line item for Madison Street improvements was noted at a sum of $300,000 using village VIP (Village Infrastructure Plan) funds. The village’s VIP Fund comes from two referendum approved sales tax increases: .5% in 2004 and another .5% in 2014.  Generally, he said, a 1% sales tax generates about $1.9 million  to $2 million per year and can only be used for infrastructure purposes.”

 “As of the date of this writing,” said Amidei, “no contracts or proposals have been approved by the village council.  It is quite possible that some of these items may be put in motion later this spring, following village council approval.”

Stella said the improvements will enhance the experience of customers who patronize the shops and restaurants along the street.  “It is very important,” he said “to make sure our business districts are looking in tip top shape.  Not only to ensure our businesses look attractive but to also give our patrons and guests an amazing experience while in town.”

He added that an attractive business district also incentivizes quality businesses to locate in Forest Park.

Regarding the relationship between the government sector and the business community, he said when it comes to money, businesses profit when the village invests in infrastructure and the village benefits from increased tax revenue. 

“This,” said Kokenes, “is just another example of all that can be accomplished through team work which starts with a great working relationship with our village.”

David King, local leasing agent and a member of the chamber’s board, touted Kokenes role in this project.

Stella also lauded Kokenes’ role. “ Laurie is unmatched at the Chamber of Commerce.  She and I have always had a great relationship.  Together with the village, she, Ryan and I can express our dedication to our community through these improvements.”