Making money isn't what drives Mark and Vivian Smith of Smith Family Construction, based in Wheeling. While Mark admits he needs to make a living and support his family, which includes five children, he said he is much more driven to make a difference in the community he calls home and where his wife and children were all born and raised.
After gaining experience in land planning around the Chicago area with Olsen and Associates, Mark and Vivian chose to start their own development company almost a quarter century ago, first building condominiums, fast-food restaurants and other commercial and industrials projects in Chicago. For the past dozen years, however, they have taken open and underdeveloped pieces of land in Wheeling and transformed them into beautiful and high-functioning residential and commercial properties.
"We have solid roots in Wheeling and we believe in making an impact on your community using the tools that God gave you. Land planning is the talent I have," Mark Smith said.
For instance, the site of Prairie Park Condominiums, located on Wolf Road just south and west of Milwaukee Avenue, was once a swampy piece of property that housed a fencing contractor who left behind lots of crushed concrete debris.
The Smiths transformed the site into a large green condominium project, using the crushed concrete debris under the development's roads and taking the water from an aquifer located on the property to create a gorgeous waterfall at the entrance to the community.
Smith calls it a "gated community without the gate."
"The water from the waterfall is constantly recycled but the evaporation rate is enormous. If we had to pay for city water to run that waterfall, it would be too expensive. The only way that waterfall was possible is because we had the aquifer on the property," Smith said. "You have to respect the land you have when choosing how to use it and you also have to work within the market demands if you want to survive."
There are now 306 condominiums built at Prairie Park in four prairie-style buildings. There is also a community center with an indoor pool, exercise rooms and party room. Sixty condominiums are available for sale, ranging in price from $229,000 to the high $400,000s. Once those are sold there are plans to build two more ponds and two more buildings containing a total of another 144 condominiums, Smith said.
For the good of condo owners, the Smiths instituted a "20-percent rental" rule at Prairie Park that limits the number of units in the condominium community that may be leased at any one time to no more than 20 percent. This means a majority of owners live on site, and prevents too many condos from becoming rental properties.
"That is certainly not for the developer's benefit. It probably hurts us. But we felt we had to do it from a community standpoint," he said.
Prairie Park is certainly not the Smiths' first trendsetting development. They are also responsible for Park Point on McHenry Road, south of Lake-Cook Road, and for Smith Park in Chicago.
"We see our role as taking that genre of condominium living and moving it to a higher level, making every square inch of it better than the one the guy next door is building, while keeping the economics in balance with the social and recreational/nature sides of each project. If you can't have all three components at the same time, I have learned not to go forward," he said.
What is your business philosophy?
"Run hard and do the best you can do. That would have been my philosophy before the downturn. But now, after being left owing $25 million to a lender, I have to add to that: Enjoy the ride and try to put together good partnerships, because when you have a collective group, you can get anything done."
What is the best part of being a builder?
"I enjoy being able to see my own dreams come true on a piece of property we have acquired and I also enjoy watching a real world community like Wheeling grow and prosper. There has been a real change of attitude in Wheeling recently. There is a new sense of pride so people are digging in and getting things done to build for the future.
"The community has been dramatically transformed in a very short period of time, which you can see when you look at the new village hall, police station, public works building and fire station. I didn't build any of them. That's not my role. But I am part of the community, so I am proud of whatever small smidgen of stewardship I have had over the changes in the community."
What have you learned?
"You have to build relationships to make things happen and you can't always have everything at the pace you want it. But when you wait, sometimes you can better results and components."
Smith, a graduate of Western Illinois University, said he has also learned to let the land speak to him in order to design the best possible development. The way a particular project interacts with the land is all-important so you have to "honor the footage."
At Smith Park in Chicago, for instance, he situated the buildings on the property with an eye on saving trees and taking full advantage of the adjoining park.
He has even traveled the country examining other designers' projects in order to get new ideas and perspectives which he could bring back to his recent Wheeling projects.
For more information about Smith Family Construction or Prairie Park, visit www.prairieparkatwheeling.com or call (847) 229-0100.