The topics ranged from restaurants in downtown Skokie to ice cream parlors to one man even wanting to raise chickens at his home, but the concerns of the village's economic future was on the minds of most people last week at a forum where Mayor George Van Dusen took questions from residents.
With about 200 people in attendance, the upstart community group Skokie Voice hosted a forum on Feb. 23 at the Oakton Community Center in what turned out to be a respectful and noncombative give and take with the man who has served as Skokie’s top executive since January 1999.
The questions touched on snow removal, police and crime to low-income housing. But what front and center in the minds of many attendees was economic development, especially along Oakton Street.
One person after another approached Van Dusen and Assistant Village Manger John Lockerby to ask about what can be done to spike up foot traffic along Oakton, a thoroughfare that Cook County is responsible for maintaining. Village Manager Al Rigoni was invited, but told Skokie Voice ahead of time that he would be unable to attend the event.
“The problem is Oakton,” Van Dusen said. “It generates 25,000–30,000 cars a day. The object of the county is to get them through. It is not the kind of street that lends itself to strolling.”
Van Dusen said the village has brought in engineers to take a look at the street traffic. He said there might be an option that developers like but residents would found unpalatable: narrowing Oakton Street.
“We are told by developers that is what we are going to have to do,” the mayor said.
Still Van Dusen said the street narrowing is not currently being pursued but noted the village was open to all ideas, which included proprietor Bob Katzman calling for more ice cream parlors.
Other residents are concerned about the types of businesses that have opened on Oakton that may not draw the clientele that neither businessmen nor the village seeks. Concerns were expressed about the liquor stores that had opened up, but the mayor says the village is limited as to what it can do about the matter.
But Van Dusen did note there are some regulations that can be enacted in terms of liquor stores, such as in regards to signage. “I think we need to be much stricter with those kinds of signs,” he said.
Several residents asked Van Dusen if it was possible that a Trader Joe’s store could be opened in the village. The mayor did not believe that would happen anytime soon. He noted village officials had approached the California-based grocery store chain, but the company wanted 5 acres of property to construct a store. However, it had no plans to expand given the shaky economy.
Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding the Oakton corridor, Van Dusen said there were some positive economic developments.
With West Dempster Street now filled with many empty storefronts, the village went ahead and purchased a significant amount of property along that strip. The move may soon pay dividends as the village as it tries to lure stores such as coffee shops into those sites.
“We are now starting to get some hard questions from developers,” Van Dusen said, adding there were various stages of interest. “Other developers have seen construction and they think this might be the place to be.”
Van Dusen said there were other positive economic indicators, including five new restaurants opening in the past year and 15 new stores at Old Orchard Mall.
On other matters that came up during the Q & A:
Snow Removal: With 2011 now being the snowiest February on record in the Chicago area, Van Dusen was peppered with many queries about the village’s snow removal efforts. With Skokie being one of the few municipalities in the area that cleans sidewalks, Van Dusen said effectiveness varied over the 240 miles of sidewalks throughout the village.
“The equipment we use for sidewalks is much less powerful than the ones we use for streets,” he said.
Overall, Van Dusen said he was very pleased with the efforts of the Public Works teams, especially during the Feb. 1 blizzard that left nearly two feet of snow blanketing the village's 175 miles of side streets.
“They got a center strip on every street within 12 hours,” he said.
Crime: With incoming Police Chief Tony Scarpelli in the audience, Van Dusen said the residential burglary rate was down in 2010 compared to the two previous years.
But the mayor called on residents continued vigilance to fight crime.
“You are the eyes and ears,” he said. “You know your neighborhood better than anyone.”
Skokie Swift: Construction continues on the Oakton Street stop for CTA's Yellow Line, known locally as the Skokie Swift. Underground work is now being done, and the target date for opening the new station is by early next year.
Van Dusen cautioned riders should be prepared for a slowdown in service between Oakton and Main streets as the construction takes place.
The mayor said there were no plans right now to open a station at Old Orchard, noting that federal transportation dollars were expected to become increasingly scarce.
Section 8 Housing: This has become a major topic of conversation in the village. Van Dusen said 2006 was the high point for that type of housing assistance, generally aimed at low-income individuals, in the village.
“It is not a high percentage of our units,” he said. “The number of units is 435, of which 204 are elderly. In 2006, we were at 457. When you integrate that with the 6,000 total units of rental property, it is a small percentage.”
Skokie Voice Chairwoman Lisa Lipin was very pleased with the night’s proceedings.
“Our objective is to bring residents and village officials together to dialogue on the important community issues,” she said. “Clearly, the turnout at the forum indicates there is not only a need, but a true desire on the part of the residents to have this exchange.”
Lipin said another forum is being planned for late spring, but the topic and format have yet to be decided.
Cathi White, a Skokie resident for 14 years, left the meeting impressed with Van Dusen.
“I’m very impressed with the mayor,” she said. “He’s genuine and a very good speaker.”
Despite being thrown by a resident who said he wanted to raise chickens in his home, Van Dusen was also happy with the evening.
“I was happy to get the questions so that I can explain what the village is attempting to do and our strategy for tackling economic development and public safety,” he said.
“I like getting the questions to see what is on the minds of residents. As the village is proceeding, we can get input from people,” the mayor said.