Whether evidence of the impact of global warning or just a cruel twist of fate, Mother Nature battered the Northwest suburbs this year.
The worst blizzard in more than a decade left some motorists thankful to escape with their lives, and other area residents talking of the camaraderie of joint snow shoveling efforts in communities virtually cut off from the outside world.
And strong winds accompanying summer storms felled hundreds of trees and caused record power outages that lasted for days, resulting in inconvenience, and in some cases, significant monetary losses. For months afterward, residents packed suburban village halls to complain about ComEd's response.
First up was the blizzard of Feb. 1, which dumped 18 to 22 inches of snow, making it the third largest snowstorm on record for the Chicago area.
But the bigger challenge was the wind, which whipped the snow into impassable drifts, blocking roads and making it impossible to deliver the next day's Daily Herald. School children got a couple days off as the days-long dig-out was completed.
A storm with 75 mile-per-hour winds hit the suburbs the morning of July 11, disrupting power to more than 850,000 ComEd customers, the worst outage in the 13 years the utility has been on its current tracking system. Municipalities had to spend weeks and tens of thousands of dollars clearing away brush.
That storm came less than two weeks after one with winds up to 100 miles per hour that had left more than 400,000 ComEd customers without power.
While those storms were marked by their winds, the area wasn't entirely spared flooding.
On Saturday, July 23, 6.86 inches of rain fell at O'Hare International Airport, breaking the previous one-day record, according to the National Weather Service. The downpour left flooded streets and basements throughout the Northwest suburbs.
Sears wins tax cut
The battle over the future of Sears' headquarters in Hoffman Estates was first revealed to the public in mid-May when the Daily Herald reported on a behind-the-scenes campaign to extend the tax breaks that first induced the company to move to the suburbs from its Chicago headquarters in what was then the world's tallest building.
Hoffman Estates lobbied heavily for the tax breaks, while Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300 -- which doesn't educate any students from the Sears property, but stood to lose the most from extended tax breaks -- fought tooth-and-nail to prevent them.
Eventually, a compromise was reached with the school district, but by then the measure had bogged down after being loaded with breaks for the CME Group and individuals. After down-to-the wire maneuvering, the deal passed and Sears Holdings Corp. promised to stay.
In return for keeping at least 4,250 jobs in Hoffman Estates, the company -- which currently has 6,100 employees there -- will receive property tax breaks worth up to $125 million over the next 15 years, and income tax credits worth up to $150 million over the next 10 years.
Sears' announcement a couple of weeks later that it was closing up to 120 stores left doubt, however, that the company can make the revenues needed to keep enough employees over the next 15 years and take full advantage of the tax breaks it won after its long battle.
Casino yes, track no
After nearly 10 years of vying for the state's 10th riverboat casino license, Des Plaines officials finally realized the fruits of their labors with the opening of the Rivers Casino.
The casino generated nearly $145 million in adjusted gross receipts -- money bet on the casino floor -- from its July 18 opening through November, putting it far ahead of the nine other casinos in the state, according to the Illinois Gaming Board's latest monthly revenue report.
Yet, overall this year, lawmakers' efforts to further expand gambling in the state have stalled.
Gov. Pat Quinn's threat that he would veto a gambling expansion bill passed by lawmakers that includes slots at Illinois racetracks disappointed the hopes of the Arlington Heights village board, which endorsed slots at Arlington Park Racecourse. Quinn's reluctance also puts plans for five new casinos, including the first one in Chicago and ones in Park City and Rockford, in limbo.
Illinois House lawmakers recently rejected a slimmed-down gambling plan only months after the same body approved its much larger predecessor.
Meanwhile, implementation of a 2-year-old video gambling law that would allow video poker machines in bars and restaurants, veterans and fraternal organizations, and truck stops, is still up in the air.
The Illinois Gaming Board hasn't yet hashed out all the regulations or put in place a centralized computer system to launch the planned network of betting terminals.
The delay was partially blamed on a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the law.
While the lawsuit was settled nearly four months ago, about 80 communities and counties have taken steps to ban video gambling.
Signs of growth
Even in tough economic times, there are plentiful signs of growth and change in the Northwest suburbs, from new restaurants and stores, to a new casino, and shopping center, and plans for a new hotel complex.
This year saw the opening of a $445 million Rivers Casino in Des Plaines; major progress toward completion of the multiyear revamping of an aging enclosed shopping mall into an outdoor lifestyle center in Mount Prospect; and the unveiling of grand plans for redevelopment of Arlington Heights' most prominent hotel, which has sat vacant for a couple of years.
Mount Prospect Director of Development Bill Cooney said a large part of the village's success is because of the ongoing $150 million renovation of the Randhurst property by Casto Lifestyle Properties and JP Morgan Chase Bank.
The 1 million-square-foot Randhurst Village is attracting both national and local tenants. TJ Maxx and Billy Goat Tavern recently opened and Black Finn restaurant, Old World Market, Panera, PetSmart and Hampton Inn are expected to follow early next year.
Meanwhile, plans for Arlington Downs on the site of the former Sheraton at Euclid Avenue and Wilke Road are winding their way through the village regulatory process.
The first phase would include building 200 to 250 apartments in the old hotel in 2013. Other plans for the site include an extended-stay hotel of at least 108 rooms, 70,000-140,000 square feet of retail and more apartments. The new owners also say they are trying to find an operator for the CoCo Key Water Resort, built at a cost of $25 million adjacent to the hotel. It also was closed in 2009.
Larson keeps his grip
Despite all the talk of angry voters, the cast of Northwest suburban mayors remained mostly unchanged in last spring's municipal election, with Schaumburg Village President Al Larson surviving his strongest challenge in many years by a much bigger margin than even he expected.
There was a changing of the guard in Prospect Heights, where, after an acrimonious campaign, Nick Helmer easily beat incumbent Dolly Vole. He'd lost to her in an election two years earlier.
Helmer said his priorities were repairing streets, adding police officers and encouraging economic development, and by the end of the year he was touting major advances in all those areas.
In Schaumburg, though the incumbents in mayoral and village board races won by strong margins, it was a campaign both sides took extremely seriously over far-reaching issues that were clearly about more than a popularity contest.
Most clearly defined was the race between longtime Larson and his challenger Brian Costin. Occurring amid a wave of strong anti-tax sentiment both locally and nationally, the campaign mostly focused on Schaumburg's relatively new property tax and Costin's criticism of the village's ownership of an airport, baseball stadium and convention center.
Larson said he never took the race for his seventh term for granted and that he was grateful that a majority of the electorate recognized and agreed with his and the board's vision for the village.
"What made me nervous was the thought of over 30 years of community service ending and all the things I've worked and striven for ending," Larson said. "I don't think it was just a victory for Al Larson; it was a victory for competence, diversity and teamwork."
New leaders in D15
A tumultuous 2010 led to a shocking spring 2011 election for Palatine Township Elementary District 15, which saw its entire incumbent slate defeated by three political newcomers.
Scott Herr, Manjula Sriram and Gerard Iannuzzelli ran together on a platform of fiscal responsibility and increased transparency, resulting in the ousting of former board President Gerald Chapman and James Ekeberg.
Once the trio was sworn in, the new District 15 board quickly moved to implement committees that focus on collaborating with the community to improve curriculum, communication and finances.
It's that last topic that still plagues the 12,000-student district, which faces a $10 million deficit in the 2012-13 school year. Terms such as layoffs, increased class size and program cuts are getting thrown around more frequently as officials prepare for the worst.
The next several months will prove especially interesting as District 15 prepares to renegotiate its expiring teachers union contract, a document seen by several board members as perpetuating a structural deficit problem.
But unlike the first half of 2010, when the board prepared to force former Superintendent Dan Lukich's resignation without public explanation, it remains confident in Superintendent Scott Thompson's leadership.
Fighting a pest
The threat of emerald ash borer to the tree population of the Northwest suburbs intensified this year, and with it came increased pressure on local governments to do more to fight the disease.
The issue appears certain to persist for years to come as suburbs battle budget pressures and weigh the costs of tree removal and replacement, versus treatment that is believed to be effective as a short-term solution for trees that aren't already too far gone.
The impact on the look of suburban neighborhoods is significant, as was pointed out in an Arlington Heights report indicating that the town could lose one-third of its 36,192 trees in five to seven years.
In Bartlett, one woman held an event to demonstrate tree treatment with an insecticide in an effort to get neighbors to band together. The treatment, which costs about $100, is said to last two years.
In Arlington Heights, the village put the cost of treatment at $1.6 million a year versus a cost of $12 million to remove and replace all of the ash trees over a period of years. The village board, pointing to cost concerns, decided at year-end that residents would be on their own if they wanted to treat trees.
In Elk Grove Village, where property tax revenue from a giant industrial park can help underwrite the expense, the village has contracted with a tree farm near Rockford since 2006 to build a stockpile of trees that can be used as replacements.
"Communities didn't prepare for it," said Mayor Craig Johnson. "We did."
For two teachers in the Northwest suburbs, 2011 was a year of controversial decisions, police investigations and resignations.
A teacher at Hoffman Estates High School resigned in November after officials at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 found out a male student was living in her home. An investigation into the relationship between the teacher and student is ongoing, according to Hoffman Estates Police.
Although the Department of Child and Family Services said an investigation substantiated claims that there was abuse, exploitation and neglect, the student spoke to the Daily Herald in December and defended his former teacher, saying she was a role model who saved him from the foster care system and poor life choices he was making. He and the teacher denied there was a sexual relationship.
Another teacher, this one at Rolling Meadows High School, resigned in December after reports that she sprayed a student in the face with Lysol during a science lab.
According to the police report, the teacher warned students that if they didn't put on their safety glasses she would spray them, and wound up spraying two students. The student who was sprayed in the face was sent to the hospital, but not seriously injured.
The teacher resigned, but charges were not filed because the student and his family decided they did not want to pursue a criminal case, police said.
Bartlett's well-liked village president, Michael Kelly, abruptly resigned Nov. 16, a few days after a Daily Herald story showed he had been consistently late in paying his property taxes over the past several years.
A heated village board meeting, where the board unanimously voted to appoint a special counsel to determine if they had any legal obligations due to Kelly's delinquency, occurred the night before Kelly stepped down.
In his resignation letter, Kelly wrote, "Last night's board meeting … made clear the best way I can continue to serve our community is to step down. I will neither facilitate nor participate in a distracting and expensive political battle with those members of the board who oppose my term of office.
"Though my sense of justice urges me to vindicate the truth and defend the rule of law, it is clear that a majority of trustees intend to lay the cost of that vindication at the taxpayer's feet."
Michael Airdo, who was first elected as a trustee in 2001 and re-elected in 2005 and 2009, was appointed to acting village president by the village board Dec. 6.
Elk Grove family finds hope after others offer support
The Evans family of Elk Grove Village went though rough times this year, but in recent months they found hope through the generosity of others.
Joan Evans, the mother of 18-year-old triplets with cerebral palsy -- including one who uses a wheelchair -- and a 12-year-old son with autism, was diagnosed with advanced stage three breast cancer in May. Her husband, Mark, lost his job that same week.
As the Evans family felt the growing stress of keeping up with medical bills and the mortgage, a family member came to their aid, hosting a fundraiser in September that took the financial burden off their shoulders for a while.
Organizers estimated that about 500 people turned out for the fundraiser, which raised more than $50,000 for the family.
"That fundraiser changed my spirit about my breast cancer, and I realized I'm going to make it," Evans said in November.
A few weeks later a couple from Hawthorn Woods donated a wheelchair-accessible van to the family, saying they were inspired to do so after reading a Daily Herald article telling the Evans' story. Since then others have continued to reach out to the family, including the Elk Grove Lions Club, which presented them with a $2,500 check last month.