JEFFERSON PARK — The executive director of the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce said Monday she resigned after months of strife over a plan to raise taxes by an average of $1,100 a year to spruce up the commercial district along Lawrence and Milwaukee avenues.
Amie Zander, who left the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce to take over the Jefferson Park business organization less than a year ago, said the conflict over the proposal to establish a Special Service Area in Jefferson Park had begun to take a toll on her personal life.
"It has been an exercise in pure frustration," Zander said of her time leading the Jefferson Park chamber.
Ald. John Arena (45th) dropped his support for the plan to raise taxes and fund efforts to fill empty storefronts in Jefferson Park earlier this month after a review prompted by allegations of fraud found the effort did not have the support of enough property owners.
Chamber past president Lionel Rabb recruited Zander, promising the chamber would play a much more active role in revitalizing the area around Lawrence and Milwaukee avenues, which is filled with empty storefronts and attracts little foot traffic.
While Rabb initially supported plans for the tax hike, he changed his mind after residents of the business district objected to footing the bill to help stores and restaurants boost their bottom lines.
In addition, Rabb said the timing of the proposed hike was inappropriate since the Chicago City Council voted in October to approve the largest tax hike in city history to shore up police and fire pensions.
Current chamber President George Karzas, the owner of the Gale Street Inn, praised Zander for attempting to put the chamber on solid footing.
"Her attempt was awesome and the chamber thanks her for her effort," Karzas said. "She was hired to clean up a mess and while she made some very good strides she is not a miracle worker."
There had been "too much back-and-forth" among board members about whether to try again to persuade at least 20 percent of property owners in the district to sign a petition supporting the tax hike, Zander said.
Without the creation of a special service area, the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce — founded in 1932 — could cease to exist, since it no longer receives approximately $30,000 in city funds that most chambers of commerce get to operate.
"The chamber is completely broke," Zander said. "And they don't have a plan."
Karzas agreed, and suggested chambers were no longer necessary.
"The chamber seems to be at an all-time low right now and is not quite sure of its course," Karzas said. "Neighborhood groups and activists seem to be all the rage these days and perhaps it's time to bury the old chamber paradigm and let the residents lead."
Missing paperwork and a lack of proper documentation for expenses led to the loss of those funds before Zander was hired, officials said.
The chamber could reapply for those funds in 2017, Zander said.
While its members pay dues, Zander said those funds would not be sufficient to have a full-time employee on staff. That could threaten the chamber's ability to produce Jeff Fest next summer, Zander said.
"Organizing Jeff Fest is a full-time job," Zander said, adding that she was skeptical that a part-time worker or volunteers could put together even a scaled-down version of the summer festival that typically draws about 4,000 people to Jefferson Memorial Park every July.
In addition, the chamber is expected to have to repay a $25,000 loan it used to pay consultants to create the application for the special service area.
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