Annie Coakley, the executive director of Downtown Evanston – the organization which provides marketing, special event, placemaking and management services to downtown – will leave her post at the end of the month to join a destination marketing organization in Oak Park.

Annie Coakley, executive director of Downtown Evanston. Credit: Submitted

Coakley, executive director of the Downtown Evanston organization since 2014, will be joining Visit Oak Park, which serves that suburb and 21 other communities in western Cook County, on May 1.

“I’m excited. I’m sad,” Coakley said during a Friday phone interview. “You know, I am sad – I love it here. And I love that I’ve made some really great friends here. And I’ve had a good time, growing the organization and putting my spin on things. It’s been great.”

On the other hand, she said, “I’m thrilled they selected me and mostly, I’m really excited to stay in the world of economic development, which is my passion, and it’s been what I’ve been doing my entire professional career. I’m going to learn a whole new set of skills I’m really excited about.”

Coakley, 47, will succeed Eric Wagner, who resigned in November to pursue international opportunities, Visit Oak Park Chairperson James Prescott said in a release.

“There was significant interest in Visit Oak Park when we posted the job, a reflection of its appeal as well as the breadth and depth of tourism assets in our partner communities that attract millions of national and international visitors,” he said.

“The Search Committee had a tall task to sort through a long list of qualified candidates who applied. At the end of that process, Annie is exactly what we wanted in our next Executive Director,” he said.

“Annie brings creative energy, a resourceful mindset, financial discipline, experience managing an organization similar in size to Visit Oak Park, and strategic priorities that align with our needs. It was a unanimous decision to offer her the job, and we are delighted she accepted,” Prescott said.

The Downtown Evanston special service area, established in 1987, was one of the earliest SSAs in the state, according to Coakley, ranking fourth behind the State Street SSA, which was created in 1976.

The Downtown Evanston organization is funded through revenues collected from a tax imposed on commercial properties within the SSA boundaries, with the money going for a wide range of services such as encouraging business retention and attraction, providing maintenance and landscaping, hosting special events and putting up holiday decor.

Downtown Evanston’s original budget of $25,000 was spent mostly on advertising. It now stands at $720,995, according to the organization’s 2022 annual report, nearly doubling during Coakley’s tenure.

“Those dollars go for a variety of services,” Coakley said. “And those services are typically considered ‘enhanced services,’ going beyond the baseline services of a city.”

For instance, she said, “the City of of Evanston purchased the flower planters around downtown. Downtown Evanston provides for the four annual plantings and watering.”

Currently, Evanston has two other SSA organizations, serving the Central Street and Main-Dempster Mile areas, and is looking to start another SSA for the Howard Street corridor.

“There are thousands of them all over the world,” Coakley said. “They’re really popular because they are for taxpayers really the one and only time you have control over how the dollars are spent.”

“Nothing happens in a vacuum,” she said of her accomplishments in Evanston. “It’s a team effort and I do look forward to see what the new executive director brings and I’m happy to help with the transition.”

Her last day on the job here is scheduled for April 28.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. Annie did a great job for Downtown Evanston and the city and was devoted to businesses and people that she worked with. She worked so well with the city staff, elected officials, Northwestern University, always advocating for Downtown Evanston. She was creative and enthusiastic and traversed some challenging times steering the downtown businesses during the pandemic and its aftermath. Her and Laura Brown were a great team. Annie has learned a lot about destination marketing in Evanston and I look forward to working with her as a peer as she heads to Oak Park. Still, it’s sad.