You didn’t have to know Mayor Donald E. Stephens well to know the affection he had for the Village of Rosemont and its residents. Whether you met him in passing or on the street or were privileged to spend significant time with him, he would quickly tell you about what he envisioned for literally every corner he passed.
Despite his larger-than-life presence, his natural leadership, his charisma, his quick wit and his unprecedented success as a mayoral CEO, his favorite pastime was stopping in at the local restaurant in the morning for coffee and what else? – a chat about Rosemont, of course. Though he would often sit with his department heads, he would be just as likely to visit with Rosemont residents.
Mayor Stephens paved the streets of Rosemont with gold, growing the town’s economy and providing excellent municipal services for very low taxes, a remarkable feat when you consider his less than easy background.
Raised on the northwest side of the city by hard-working parents, Don suffered the terrible early loss of his father and family’s subsequent economic struggles. Don became a reservist, later earning his GED. He played semi-professional football, and though he looked tough on the outside – and he was – he also had the biggest heart in the world. He married, and his first son, Donald E. Stephens II, was born.
Smart and resourceful, Don Stephens left his job downtown with a renowned insurance company to start a new insurance business right in his own garage. He became an extremely successful independent entrepreneur.
As his business and family grew, so did his neighborhood. Soon it became necessary to organize a homeowner’s association. When nearby suburbs declined to annex what was little more than a subdivision, Don Stephens studied the Illinois Municipal Code and incorporated the town himself. The name Rosemont was pulled out of a hat.
It was 1956 and everything was possible.
At that time, Midway Airport on the city's southwest side predominated, and O’Hare International Airport was little more than a service depot. But farsighted Mayor Donald E. Stephens saw O'Hare’s tremendous potential, and the village grew at a sure, steady pace until the 1970’s.
One of the biggest misunderstandings about Rosemont is that it grew only because of its proximity to O’Hare. It has been said that hotel corporations decided on their own to build properties there. In fact, the hotels could have sprung up in any suburb around O’Hare. Why did they choose Rosemont? Because of Don Stephens and only Don Stephens.
One brilliant action gave Rosemont the foundation for its explosive growth: Mayor Stephens persuaded the Pritzker family to build a Hyatt property directly across the street from a warehouse that the Mayor was in the process of converting to a convention center. The Hyatt House opened in 1972 and the O’Hare Exposition Center opened in 1975.
Mayor Stephens made good on his promise to work hard to attract convention business, and today, the Donald E. Stephens Convention and Conference Center is the only facility of its kind in the nation to return revenues without any subsidies. Today, it is ranked between #10 and #12 in the industry, attracting 1.35 million visitors to more than 100 events, generating approximately $14 million in revenues from hotel room tax and other retail taxes, making an economic impact of $343 million annually to the area. It is Rosemont’s anchor business, and has set the foundation for the 18,000-seat Allstate Arena, completed in 1980, and the Rosemont Theatre, which opened in 1995.
There were two things that made Don Stephens one of America’s smartest CEO’s, according to a prominent Chicago business editor: His vision and his ability to market, from bond financing to winning a meeting or convention to convincing numerous hotel and businesses to build here.
But history will show that the real reasons for his remarkable success were his love for the Village of Rosemont and especially, his family. Whether you visit with his wife, Katherine, or any of his children -- Don II, Mark, Gail or Bradley -- any of his 12 grandchildren, or his former wife, Pat, they will all tell you the same thing: He wanted to be the best provider, even ensuring that they would have the best hometown possible in which to reside.
Perhaps most poignant is that Mayor Stephens was on the brink of his biggest achievement yet – Rosemont Walk -- a $500 million, 60-acre entertainment district to include a luxury movie theater megaplex, three beautiful new hotels, the biggest water park in Illinois, several nationally famous restaurants and much more in the future.
A spirit this strong can never leave us. When Rosemont Walk opens, he will be there.