By Nona Tepper
Debate centered on diversity and development at the mayoral forum on March 10, sponsored by the Forest Park Review and Forest Park Public Library.
Candidates Rory Hoskins and Chris Harris each served as commissioners on the village council — Hoskins for eight years and Harris for four years — and each went on to unsuccessfully challenge Emanuel "Chris" Welch for state representative of the 7th district. In 2015, Harris also challenged Mayor Anthony Calderone for the village's top spot. He lost that race in which Hoskins endorsed Calderone.
At the debate, Hoskins vowed to avoid "micromanaging" village operations.
"I see the role of mayor and the council as setting policy, finding resources for the village, networking and then making decisions from a 10,000-foot level, as opposed to getting on the dance floor," Hoskins said.
When he and his wife moved to Forest Park in 1999, Hoskins said they initially rented an apartment. He decided to coach soccer because he wanted his son's league fees waived. When he approached the Park District of Forest Park, he said he was "regarded with some skepticism" but eventually got the coaching job, which he said opened the door to joining the village's Traffic and Safety Commission and then running for office.
"I don't think the question of inclusion or diversity is going to go away anytime soon; I think it's happening organically, but it's been a slow process," he said. "We have to change our mindset to where we no longer only have 'Merry Christmas' on the village decorations. There's room for other ethnic and religious holidays to be highlighted."
Years ago he saw instances where African-American mothers wanted to volunteer in the schools but "for whatever reason there's a breakdown in communication and they just don't feel welcome." When he helped start the park district's annual Juneteenth celebration, he said it was a "very different" event for Forest Park.
"People were actually saying things like, 'Rory is not going to allow white people to come to Juneteenth,'" Hoskins said. "Now that is absolutely crazy, right? But you know there's always resistance to inclusion. The whole point of the event was to bring people who may feel a little bit marginalized into a new environment."
He noted that the village has never had an African-American firefighter and had "very few" black police officers. When he was commissioner, he said he talked to the then-fire chief about the issue, and the two decided to more actively look for African-American candidates by taking an ad out with minority trade groups and posting a prominent ad on the village website. Advertising through these means was an effective way to drive diversity in village hiring, he said, as well as communicate with residents.
If elected, Hoskins would update the village website so it's "more robust, a lot quicker, easier to use," but he doesn't plan to use social media.
Harris, meanwhile, said he thinks the mayor needs to be on social media since that's where the residents are. If elected, he would likely start an account similar to the "Mayor Anthony Calderone" profile the mayor currently uses to engage residents, which is separate from his personal profile. He said he would also hold regular office hours for citizens to attend and present a yearly state-of-the-village address.
But he agreed having a police and fire department that better reflected the community demographics was something to strive for.
"We, as a village, get sued far more consistently than any village of our size. We pay out, we have a reputation of settling, and we get lawsuits, some very warranted, some not," Harris said. "There's law firms that specialize in this and there's a big red dot on us as a mark these days. At some point you have to fight one of those. It's going to cost you more money. You can't have the reputation as a town that will settle every lawsuit."
Harris estimated the village's law bills were three times higher than those of River Forest, a town of similar size. He said it's because staff has to "lean on" the firm too much for advice. If elected, Harris said he would look to reimagine the way the village uses its vendors to cut costs.
"When staff has to pick up the phone for every legal question instead of talking to a paralegal, instead of talking to our contact lawyer, or talking to our liaison at the engineering firm instead of a lower staff, you're spending a lot of money right out of the gate," Harris said.
Hoskins agreed there is room to reduce costs at the village by competitively bidding some of its existing service contracts, naming ambulance services and auditing as examples. He also believes there is room for condo development along Roosevelt Road, saying part of the reason the village expanded its tax increment financing (TIF) districts along Roosevelt Road is because the village was anticipating future development.
"I met with a couple of business leaders and they told me a property owner has an interest in building higher" on Roosevelt, Hoskins said. "I've heard from a number of people in Forest Park, business owners, stakeholders in our community, who would like to see some more dense development along routes where they are close to transportation."
Harris also said he'd talked to the property manager at Forest Park Plaza and recommended the mall lease out some of its lots near Portillo's and Taco Bell. When he last talked with business owners, he said, a banquet hall was interested in coming to the vacant Home Owners Bargain Outlet (HOBO) space.
He ran for mayor four years ago because he "felt like things were slowing down" in terms of economic development, saying an "all in" approach was necessary. He noted that the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce had recently restarted its own economic development committee after the previous effort by the village "kind of petered out."
"It's not coming from village hall. I've said this before and I know some people on the chamber aren't happy with me saying it, but I think it needs to be a partnership with the village. I think it needs to be a partnership with the bank," Harris said. "I think you need to help people develop small business plans."
Hoskins named development of the front of the village-owned Altenheim property as a shot of cash for small restaurants and shops on Madison Street, but at least 5 acres should be saved as green space. He named knocking down the Altenheim's old buildings as his top priority as mayor.
"If there's construction there, that construction has economic inputs that benefit the rest of Forest Park," Hoskins said, "Where do the construction workers eat, is there participation from local businesses in construction? I believe there is. It creates traffic for Madison Street and it creates consumers who will probably spend money in Forest Park."
Harris said the first step in figuring out what to do with the Altenheim property is to hold a town hall meeting about its future. He believes the village should sell off a portion of the front property.
"With that front portion, I've talked about a boutique hotel, I think that's a winner for Madison Street as well," Harris said. "If we had a larger green space, conference space in a boutique hotel — 80-room max — that could fit into that space. … Then you have people who need to drink, eat and shop right down the street."