Did Mayor John A. Ostenburg Cause The Great Recession?

Gary Kopycinski

Commentary
By Gary Kopycinski

Did Mayor Ostenburg cause the Great Recession? This is America, after all, and we have a right to know.

Listening to the rhetoric in the current political campaign, I realize that some of the criticisms of our local economy are also directed at me, and every other member of the Village Board. We serve with the mayor, after all. We own our successes, and we must own our failures. But during a campaign, we learn of failures that never happened.

Let’s review some of the businesses that did close in Park Forest in recent years, starting with Orchard Fresh Market.

We had a lot of hope that the business would succeed, but I asked the question shortly after the store finally opened in March 2009: Will we shop there?

"In the midst of a world-wide global recession, some local entrepreneurs just opened a grocery store in Park Forest. Will we shop?" I wrote.

It turns out the reasons for the store’s demise are many, and the majority of those have nothing to do with either the Village Board or Park Forest residents. The day before the store shut its doors for good – literally, the day before – we learned that one of the original partners, well-capitalized and knowledgeable in the grocery business, withdrew from the deal. This left one owner who was severely under-capitalized, who did not have years worth of experience in the grocery business. He had not, in fact, ever run a grocery store before. His experience was elsewhere.

The store was doomed from the start.

Orchard Plaza is privately owned. We still hope for a business to open its doors.

Still, would the business have succeeded if none of the previous were true? Would Park Foresters, long-accustomed to shopping for groceries elsewhere, have changed their shopping habits in time for that store to succeed?

But isn’t this all really the fault of the Village Board, and the mayor in particular?

What about other projects?

Taco Bell on Western Avenue closed, yes, but the Taco Bell company demolished and rebuilt the facility on Sauk Trail and uses that for training. The owner of the ice cream store now works in a different industry. That was his choice.

There are successes also. CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens are doing well, and we should support them. 7-Eleven on Sauk Trail is a Park Forest business generating sales tax and employing Park Foresters. We should support them as well. There are two art galleries in the DownTown that generate sales tax, and, soon, the South Suburban Food Co-op will return to the DownTown, and will generate sales taxes. There is a bustling gym in the DownTown, Quality Classic Health and Fitness Center. There is still a movie theater and Shrimp Max next to the theater.

There’s a music store in the DownTown employing musicians, and, if you buy strings from them for your guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin and more; or reeds for your clarinet or sax; that generates sales taxes.

In the DownTown you will also find Mike Jordan State Farm, a man who moved his business from Park Forest and returned during the tenure of the current mayor. You will find Tower Cleaners in the DownTown, Subway on Sauk Trail. You can find barbers and hair stylists on Sauk Trail and in the DownTown. A man named Eric Hollendonner will build a patio or remodel a room for you, and his business is located in Park Forest.

We need to support these businesses, and more.

Here’s what I know about economics: everything and anything can cause markets to rise and fall. Who would have imagined (except those who were supposedly trained to plan for such things) that Japan would be struggling with a nuclear emergency right now, and this is hurting the global economy? Who would have imagined that the cry for Democracy, long-debated in the Arab-speaking world, would emerge into a multi-national attempt to overthrow some of the most oppressive regimes ever? And before that, who would have imagined that our wise banking industry, so smart they convinced several congresses they needed no regulations, would tell people earning $50,000 and $60,000 a year that they suddenly qualified for no-money-down mortgages in excess of $400,000?

Economics can be about anything.

Our Taxing Conversations

Yes, we need to continue to have conversations about taxes in Park Forest and beyond. Illinois’ regressive tax system must change. During campaigns, local governing bodies take huge hits on an issue that only Springfield can fix.

Here’s where your tax bill goes, Park Forest:

Tax Graph
(Graphic: VOPF FY 2010/11 Annual Budget)

If you live in School District 163, on average, more than 60% of your tax bill goes to the schools. Only 29% goes to Park Forest. Your Village Board levies the 29% portion. Individual school districts levy the rest.

We need to go to our school districts, go to our representatives in Springfield, call the governor, and change that. If you make $60,000 a year and your next-door neighbor makes $180,000 a year, the assessor is required, by law, to levy similar amounts from both of you, whether that is $3,000, $4,000, $5,000, $8,000, or more.

That needs to change.

We need to focus on issues, change what we can, and remain honest regarding the causes.