Oak Park Development Corp. evolves approach as business changes
Kim Humphrey (left) talks with Oak Park Development Corp. president Sara J.R. Faust at Bead in Hand, Humphrey's store on Harrison Street. Humphrey says help from Faust's group was crucial when she bought the business. | Jon Langham~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 22, 2013 10:49AM
OAK PARK — As the nature of business success evolves, so does the Oak Park Development Corporation.
The nonprofit economic development agency, established in 1974, is charting new ways to attract and retain thriving businesses and entrepreneurs.
“We adopted a new strategic plan last year, which was probably an eight-month process,” said OPDC president Sara Faust. “We asked, what do our businesses want, and how does that fit the mission of being a catalyst for economic growth?”
The OPDC served about 175 clients in 2012, functioning as a liaison among developers, property and business owners and the Village. In addition to attracting and supporting businesses, it pairs incoming enterprises with available commercial space and promotes business and tourism development.
“We seek to determine what Oak Park needs and move collectively in that direction,” Faust. “We play to each other’s strengths.”
One client, Willis Johnson, president of Tivoli Enterprises/Classic Cinemas, which owns the Lake Theater in Oak Park, worked with the agency initially in 1984, when renovating the Lake to expand from one screen to three.
“It was the only way we could get financing,” Johnson said, adding that the development corporation was also extremely helpful in working with the village.
He would urge others to work with the development corporation, too.
“Absolutely, especially if you are a new business person. They have lots of resources to help you get started on the right foot.”
One new direction born of the strategic plan is a Green Biz program. The OPDC offered seminars to help businesses expand — and tout — their green efforts.
“How do we support businesses that reflect the core values of Oak Park?” Faust asked, rhetorically. One answer, he noted, is that “Oak Park values sustainability.”
The goal was getting 20 businesses to sign up for the Green Biz program; 22 did. Participants enrolled at no cost, partly supported by an Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation grant.
Also new in the strategic plan was offering on-site business counseling through SCORE — the Senior Core of Retired Executives.
The OPCD had worked with the group before to offer free small-business counseling and mentoring to entrepreneurs, Faust said. But clients had to travel to SCORE counseling locations.
The OPDC has now also added enriched seminar-based training in small business basics for entrepreneurs, covering topics such as Web site design and online marketing, social network marketing and accounting.
Oak Park is a desirable community for business people, Faust said.
“We are the 20th best marketplace in the country, if you take market density compared to household income,” she said.
Part of the OPDC’s mission is to promote the Oak Park market.
“A huge component of what we do is recruiting,” Faust said. “We target large businesses nationwide for what we’re missing, in terms of services, and the building stock we have available.”
Insider knowledge is perhaps the OPDC’s greatest asset. The agency can help new businesses assess local demographics against their product or service, budget and square footage, and work with them to calculate “a model for success,” Faust said.
“We know demographics beyond the basic numbers. We look at national trends,” she added.
Another development corporation client is Kim Humphrey. She used to work at Bead In Hand on Harrison Street. Now, she owns it.
She didn’t seek out the OPDC as much as it found her.
“With the store owner ready to sell, I either had to prepare for the job market or find a way to buy the shop,” Humphrey said. “I didn’t really think there was a way to buy the shop, but when Doris Weinbaum, the former owner, happened to be talking with Teresa Powell at Village Hall, Teresa suggested contacting OPDC. I vaguely knew about OPDC, but not a whole lot, and was not aware that they could actually help me obtain a bank loan.”
Besides helping her obtain financing, the OPDC helped Humphrey take the reins of the loan process and store ownership.
“I am not a business person and I could not have navigated through the complexities of bank requirements without them,” she said. “OPDC staff spent a lot of time with me and many times explained terms and procedures very slowly until I got it. It was kind of like having a personal agent doing your negotiations for you.”
Humphrey sees the two-way benefit of OPDC efforts.
“Since this was already an established business, it was certainly a plus for the Village to hold onto it,” she said.
“They’re helping me this year, too,” she added, because she’s applied for a grant for new signs for the store.
“It’s not a huge amount of money, but when you’re a small business, every little bit helps.”