Brad Stephens Reflects On First Decade In Office As Mayor
By TODD WESSELL
Journal & Topics Editor
A little risk and a little luck.That’s how Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens partially describes how things have unfolded the last 10 years in the village where he grew up, which his father, Donald E. Stephens, guided for more than half a century.
To some, the word “understated” is an apropos response to to the mayor’s description. Before cancer claimed the life of the elder Stephens in the spring of 2007, Rosemont had grown from a sleepy gathering of houses just outside the city limits of Chicago, that was known for its frequent flooding, to a behemoth among local American communities. In the 51 years that Donald Stephens served as mayor, the tiny village, which in 1956 adopted the name Rosemont, had completely changed. The 19,000-seat Rosemont Horizon, now Allstate Arena, was built, as was a new convention center -- now named the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center -- and the Rosemont Theater. New hotels -- lots of them -- also sprang up to accommodate travelers flying into and out of the continuously growing O’Hare International Airport next door. And for the most part, the flooding stopped with the arrival of several innovative prevention programs.
The death of Donald Stephens in 2007 forced a changing of the guard in Rosemont. The man whom village board members selected as Rosemont’s second mayor was Brad Stephens, the late mayor’s youngest son, who at age 44 served as a village trustee for the previous 18 years.
Since the day Brad Stephens took office on May 1, 2007, there’s been no looking back. Following the disappointment of not being named the site for the state of Illinois’ 10th casino, Rosemont and its mayor and trustees rolled up their sleeves and created a plan on how best to develop the property where the casino would have been built just west of the massive village-owned parking garage next to the Tri-State Tollway. Three architects were invited to submit proposals and from that, one idea stood out that resulted in the development of a new entertainment district named MB Financial Park at Rosemont. The Muvico Theater opened in September 2007 followed by the Aloft Hotel eventually leading to the building of several restaurants and entertainment venues that encircle a central plaza where concerts are performed during warmer months and ice-skating in winter. Not long after that, two high-end restaurants, Capital Grille and McCormick & Schmick’s, opened along River Road and nearby, a new Loews Hotel.
“We had all these people coming to town (to the convention center, theater and arena) and there was nothing to do,” says Stephens. Estimates are that between 75,000 and 100,000 people visit Rosemont every day where they work.
Brad Stephens explains that his nearly two decades as an elected village trustee provided him the insight and knowledge on how to govern and serve a constituency.
“It was great to get at the table and watch the master,” remarks Brad. “He (his father) was excellent. He had a great ability to gravitate to the crowd.”
As MB Park, high-end restaurants and more hotels were filling Rosemont’s skyline, the mayor, an avid sports fan, focused on additional ways of attracting people to the community. Starting with an idea of bringing more children to the village, Stephens said he called the owner of the Chicago Bandits women’s professional softball team and invited them to Rosemont. At the time, the team was playing its home games in West suburban Judson College. The Bandits could play their home contests in a new ballpark the village was hoping to build and after Stephens showed team owner Bill Sokolis the architectural drawings of the new stadium he was sold. The softball stadium opened in June 2010 followed later with the nearby opening of the Dome at Rosemont where a variety of sports and athletic training experiences are hosted year-round.
“We never expected to make money on the dome.” remarks Stephens. “We wanted to bring people to the community and help and work with kids to fight obesity. It costs about $200,000 a year to run the operation, which is close to breakeven.”
Throughout the last several years, the Allstate Arena, built in 1980, has also been upgraded with the opening of three new lounges to accommodate a more demanding clientele. In addition, new signage and other amenities have been integrated into the arena making for a more pleasant experience.
With the decision by the state to award the 10th casino license to neighboring Des Plaines, Rosemont’s plans for the property where it would have placed the gaming operation changed dramatically. Originally, restaurants and bars would have circled outside the casino. But as the casino deal for Rosemont fell through, “things worked out,” says the mayor who told of the time when he and his son, Danny, traveled to Boston to watch a Red Sox game. While there, they stopped to meet Patrick Lyons, the owner of Kings Bowl, which began the conversation that led to the opening of Kings Bowl in Rosemont’s entertainment district.
“Absolutely, MB Park is a success,” pronounces Brad Stephens. “Others are trying to copy our success.”
And one of the most lucrative projects in Rosemont’s history rose from the ground on open land west of the Rosemont Theater and east of the Tri-State Tollway: Fashion Outlets Chicago indoor shopping mall. It’s indoor concept and close location to O’Hare Airport along with easy access from all parts of the country have made the 530,000 sq. ft. retail project one of the most successful in the nation. It has created hundreds of new jobs and brought in millions of dollars to Rosemont’s and the state of Illinois’ coffers through sales tax income. There is talk of one day expanding the mall.
But before Rosemont, Brad Stephens and village board members “cool their heels,” as the mayor suggests, work on another awe-inspiring project is moving full steam ahead that will bring in another hotel, two new restaurants, and a minor league baseball park and team. That development, called the Pearl, is focusing on new development west of the Tri-State Tollway along Balmoral Avenue. Opening is scheduled for the spring of 2018.
“We’ve gone almost as far as we can with MB Park where we’re the landlord,” Stephens says. “Now we’re focusing on the Pearl. Construction activity is moving quickly on the building of a new 6,500-seat minor league ballpark at Balmoral and the tollway.
“I’m passionate every day. I love what I’m doing,” says Stephens. “I like the people I’m dealing with. Dad was shrewd, but he had a huge heart. He was not a tough guy. He put his blood, sweat and tears into this.”
As the father of two young children, Brad Stephens stresses that he has no plans for retirement.
“I still plan on being here. I can see maybe 10 years. I’m a realist. I want to stay in good favor with the residents and keep on trucking.”