By: Christopher Placek
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Before it was an entertainment and business mecca of the suburbs, Rosemont was an oft-flooded swampy area with pothole-ridden, unpaved roads, no streetlights and taverns that became hangouts for the mob.
"There are times that I don't believe that we've done it. There are times when I remember ... what it was," said Donald E. Stephens, the town's longtime Mayor, in a 2006 interview before his death a year later. "When you drove down River Road, all you saw were curls of smoke coming from garbage dumps. It's just a completely different picture." In the ensuing years, Stephens' vision has continued in many ways under his successor, son Bradley, who has his eye on development of remaining vacant land to further strengthen the town's tourism industry and bolster Village coffers with additional tax revenue.
Wednesday, January 20th, marks the 60th Anniversary of Rosemont's incorporation as a Village of 84 acres and 84 residents.
Today, the 2.5-square-mile town on the edge of O'Hare International Airport has 4,200 residents many of whom live in a close-knit gated community and are employed by the Village. But what drives Rosemont's economy is its estimated 100,000 visitors a day, drawn to the town's 14 hotels, a shopping mall, offices and Village-owned venues including a stadium, theater, convention center and entertainment district.
"They made the decision right from the start what they wanted to be," said Steve Hovany, a former Schaumburg village planning director and now president of his own real estate consulting firm. "Then they systematically went ahead and did it."
Almost from the beginning, Rosemont linked itself to O'Hare, which was on its way to becoming the world's busiest airport. As other suburban towns fought airplane noise and expansion plans, Stephens was feeding off it. "Without the airport, there'd be no Rosemont," said Bob Thompson, a 50-year resident who was Park Director for 30 years until his retirement in 1997. "We never complain about it."
In 1958, Stephens brokered a deal with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley for access to Chicago water in exchange for a 162-foot-wide strip of Foster Avenue that would allow the city to connect to O'Hare. Rosemont got the right to 4 million gallons of water per day at Chicago rates.
"Daley was bemused; why would Rosemont with its current 1,200 population need 4 million gallons of water a day? But he agreed to the exchange," according to a book the Village published for Rosemont's 50th anniversary.
Stephens had his eye on the future, with hopes of building a Village-owned exposition center and stadium. In 1970, he got closer to that goal, when a new Illinois Constitution allowed voters in small towns to approve home rule, giving municipalities the right to issue bonds and borrow for big projects.
The referendum proposal to allow home rule passed easily in Rosemont.
From the $12 million, 150,000-square-foot O'Hare Exposition Center that opened in 1975 to the $19 million Rosemont Horizon that opened five years later, Stephens may have been the brainchild behind the big plans in his town. But he also relied on a close inner circle of advisers, including builders and lawyers.
"My dad was the kind of guy that if he would've come up with an idea, he would've thrown a supposition out 'Suppose if we would do this' to you and you and people that were around, to see what their feelings were," Brad Stephens said. "I think when he did that, his mind was already made up where he believed it should go, but he always looked for input." The one project that eluded Donald Stephens, though, was a casino.
The Illinois Gaming Board awarded Rosemont a license in March 2004, but the deal soon fell apart amid accusations that investors in the proposed casino had mob ties. After Stephens' death in 2007, Brad Stephens took another shot at securing the casino license, but the gaming board ultimately picked neighboring Des Plaines.
The current Mayor believes the board did "a great favor" by putting the casino across the street from Rosemont, since it allowed the Village to develop its burgeoning 200,000-square-foot entertainment district on land once planned for a casino.
Intended to complement the casino, the Muvico movie theater and Aloft hotel were the first things built, soon followed by a mix of restaurants and bars, along with a comedy club and bowling alley. Indoor sky diving was the latest addition in 2014. Rosemont made an initial $40 million investment to build on the once-vacant land next to the Tri-State Tollway, but officials are counting on the district to produce proceeds in property, sales, amusement, and food and beverage taxes.
"I don't suppose he would've been too crazy about extending some debt at his age with what we did with the entertainment project," Brad Stephens said of his father. "But if we didn't, it would probably still be sitting there as a bucket of gravel."
"It's paid off," the Mayor said of the investment, as he knocked on his wooden desk in his second-floor Village Hall office.
Stephens admitted there will be "a couple tough years" of debt payments with the expiration of the Village's third tax increment financing district, where land sat undeveloped for years without growing any incremental property tax revenue -- money above a frozen amount that would have gone into the development rather than to local governments.
At the same time, the Village continues to use TIF laws to help pay for projects in the works, including The Pearl, a proposed 16-acre mixed-use development that could open next year west of the Tri-State Tollway and south of Balmoral Avenue that would include a hotel, office building and Buddy V's Ristorante.
Across Balmoral, Stephens said negotiations continue with an ownership group for a proposed 7,000-seat minor league baseball stadium that could open in the summer of 2018.
Stephens has left open the door to demolishing the 4,200-seat Rosemont Theatre, should the neighboring 530,000-square-foot Fashion Outlets of Chicago mall decide to expand. The Village received about $13.2 million in sales tax revenue in 2014 from the mall.
And he'd like to see something happen at one of the last remaining vacant pieces of land, a former golf course on the northwest corner of Mannheim and Higgins roads.
The Village is planning community events to mark the 60th anniversary, starting with a reception at Wednesday's Village Board Meeting. A statue of Donald Stephens is now being constructed, to be dedicated June 19, Father's Day in front of Village Hall.
"He always had stories," the current Mayor said of his father, "but he always focused a lot more on the future and what was going to happen next."