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Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn in good health

  • Written by Joe Boyle

Serving as mayor, or village president, of a southwest suburban municipality is a daunting task these days. Not only do these mayors have to balance a strained budget, but they are left sitting on the sidelines while the budget impasse in Springfield drags on and on.

And not much was going to come from a meeting between Gov. Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22nd) and other legislators on Tuesday. The southwest suburban mayors are resigned to the fact that this tug-of-war is going to continue into the new year.

I thought about all that while working on a story this week on a healthy competition between Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn in terms of attracting big box stores, retailers and other assorted businesses. Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton admitted he would like to draw more businesses from other suburbs, including Oak Lawn.

While Sexton and Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury are often competing to land businesses for their communities, both officials have one common goal: they want the best for their southwest suburban towns.

Sexton reminisced recently about the demise of The Plaza, once known as the Evergreen Plaza and a model for malls across America. Sexton was given the first opportunity to strike the first blow with a sledgehammer on the old Montgomery Ward building to begin the demolition of The Plaza. He enjoyed the photo-op but admitted that it was also a sad day, an end of an era.

But since Sexton is the mayor of Evergreen Park, he can’t afford to get too wrapped up in nostalgia. That’s why he also quickly mentions that a new era has arrived in Evergreen Park. The Evergreen Marketplace is going to replace the old Plaza. The Plaza had over 120 stores in its prime. The Marketplace will be closer to 95th and Western and will draw a variety of well-known stores. The Marketplace will have anywhere from 25 to 40 stores.

Evergreen Park already has a Mariano’s and a Wal-Mart. A drive north on Western Avenue shows mores businesses where the Evergreen Park golf course used to be. Both Sexton and Bury have had to adapt following a brutal recession that began at the end of 2007 and is beginning to finally subside. However, that does not mean everyone has found work. Many people who have been laid off are working for less money or juggling a couple of part-time jobs.

This is what Sexton and Bury have to deal with. But both mayors refuse to sit on the sidelines. They have been instrumental in helping to draw new businesses to their communities. Both mayors have been assisted by efficient staffs who have worked hard over the years to convince developers that Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn are viable communities.

One thing I have discovered over the years is that having similar businesses in a community encourages more businesses to enter the arena. That’s why this healthy competition is just that. Sexton said that while he may lose out on one business that prefers Oak Lawn, this opens the door for other retailers.

In a story that appears in this edition, Bury said that when Evergreen Park does well, Oak Lawn does well. I believe that is true. If a neighboring community is mired in economic difficulties, it can cause a chain reaction. Boarded-up businesses can damage the quality of schools and a rising crime rate often follows. That can cross over into neighboring towns. It is much better to have strong business communities. This, in turn, attracts developers who normally may have been eyeing more affluent communities.

The positive aspect of having a healthy competition for retailers and restaurants is that both municipalities develop a reputation that they are business-friendly. And this does have a direct effect on schools, neighborhoods and crime.

Hey, let’s be honest here. Life is far from perfect in Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn. While there has been an increase in businesses, there are empty storefronts. But that does not make Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn much different than other suburban communities.

The Stony Creek Promenade District at 111th and Cicero in Oak Lawn has drawn Mariano’s and Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant. Suddenly, a once lifeless corner that featured a dated Kmart has more appeal.

Yes, not everyone is delighted with every aspect of the project. Flap-jacks, the popular breakfast spot known for its omelettes, found a new home where the Top Notch restaurant was located at 95th and Cicero. Many people were angry when the plans for the Stony Creek Promenade were made because that meant Flap-jacks would have to move. But the owners are happy at their new location.

But if you also look down 95th Street, a variety of restaurants ranging from Chipotle to Lucky Burrito can be found. In the regard, Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn are on the right track. Maybe they can teach some legislators in Springfield about efficiency.