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Oak Park Avenue: 'The Street that Jim Built'

They call him the Mayor of Oak Park Avenue. Jim Fuentes talks about marketing his favorite street.

Jim Fuentes is full of ideas.

At 22 years old, he worked as a teacher by day and a paramedic by night. Today, he's a local insurance agent, singing the praises of .

"They call me the Mayor of Oak Park Avenue," he said on Wednesday. "Probably because my money is where my mouth is. I'm the town crier. I'm trying to market Oak Park Avenue and the community."

His call to serving others—and his community—has brought him several awards over the years. In 1997, the named him Businessman of the Year. The has since selected him as its Volunteer of the Year.

Fuentes and his wife, Lois, moved to Tinley in 1987. He reflected Wednesday on the early days of meetings with the business owners in the downtown area.

"I saw the downtown along Oak Park Avenue begin to lose some businesses," he said. "There were to many vacancies up and down the street. So I got together with the business owners and began to have meetings."

The group originally called themselves "PROP," standing for People for the Restoration of Oak Park avenue, he said. Today, it's known as the Oak Park Avenue Mainstreet Association.

Fuentes calls himself one of the "spokes on the wheel."

"I kept thinking how important this was," he said, adding that every time the group met, they'd plan a new event. "We began slow.  I remember when Zabrocki Plaza was just asphalt. We had our first October kiddy parade, we marched around the asphalt, down Oak Park Avenue and wound up at the old Central School … The principal let the kids in where they played games and had fun. Now, (the event) is down by Tinley Square and 500 families show up. It's our way of giving back."

Fuentes and his fellow Oak Park Avenue Mainstreet Association members have brought their ideas to life. Thousands of non-residents now join Tinley folks in various seasonal celebrations, he said. For instance, the annual through the downtown has now become a tradition for many.

Fuentes has volunteered as the emcee of that parade, and 44 others, just for fun.

"We're finally getting it right," he said. "I love seeing the people walking up and down Oak Park. It makes me think of the 1950s. Watching families getting ice cream cones or stop at one of the pizza places. It's Americana."

The love Fuentes has for life and for Tinley Park is contagious.

"It isn't hard to love Tinley Park because the people are so great," he said. "A lot of people here give back … And the parks here, they are always bubbling with kids."

But what, you ask, does the future hold for Oak Park Avenue? Fuentes hopes lots of sweet treats and good eats.

"We need to get more speciality shops, that's part of our marketing plan," he said. "We need Bogart's back, we miss them. I would like to see a pierogi fest, a strawberry fest and hey, let's have a chocolate fest."

The Oak Park organization came up with the Autumn Fine Arts Festival as well as the parade, which includes free carriage rides, photos with Santa and goodies. There are movie nights in the summertime in the north train station parking lot.

Fuentes keeps coming up with ideas an in his free time, says he sings like a bird.

"I love to sing!" he said. "One of my dreams is to go to all the nursing homes and sing to all the residents. To have fun, sing songs that will bring back memories for them. I like to see smiles on people's faces."

His love of the Earth recently brought him another idea—A community garden along Oak Park Avenue that helps others.

"We feed 45 families a week," he said. "The food we grow, goes to the food pantry. … My wife, Lois, and I want to thank the volunteers who help with the garden."

If you notice that a new movement comes to Oak Park Avenue, it may very well have come from Fuentes.

"I have this mind that never quits, I'm a trailblazer," he said.

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