The Kane County community of Carpentersville is experiencing a rebirth of sorts, due in large part to a prominent local businessman who is determined "not to see Carpentersville turn into Detroit."
Tom Roeser has been gradually buying up much of Carpentersville's aging commercial and industrial real estate along the Fox River since 1968 when the company he now runs first came to town. Roeser is president of OTTO Engineering, a developer and manufacturer of two-way radio accessories and industrial controls like those found in jet fighter joysticks and heart defibrillators.
Over the years, he and his father, Jack, have purchased, renovated and sandblasted 400,000 square feet of the old Illinois Iron and Bolt facility, which was built between 1871 and 1904. These newly refurbished industrial buildings in the heart of downtown Carpentersville went from eyesore to attribute under the Roesers' careful ministrations.
However, creating a nice riverfront business campus was not enough for the younger Roeser. He was distressed by Carpentersville's less-than-enviable reputation. So he made it his mission to buy up and renovate much of the aging infrastructure of downtown Carpentersville, transforming junkyards into riverfront parks, taverns into restaurants, an old school into offices, and other dilapidated buildings into retail and office space.
"I am trying to change the character of Carpentersville and remove the stigma that has surrounded it for so long," he said.
More recently, he has purchased half of the formerly gang-infested Morningside townhouse community. Since 2005 he has been renovating the townhouses and renting them to employees and other screened tenants for between $650 and $750 per month, which is approximately $200 below market rents, Roeser said. Employees get their rents taken directly from their paychecks.
"The police would tell you that they visited the Morningside neighborhood ten times per week before we got involved there. Now they would say they haven't been in the neighborhood in three months. This renovation of the neighborhood has definitely saved Carpentersville money on law enforcement," Roeser said.
"Some said that I should have just torn the whole area down, but I knew I could fix it," he said of the 1972-era frame townhouses that line up eight or ten to a block. "So we tore them down to the studs, redid everything and put our employees and people they refer to us in them with low rents. We have an application form, an in-person interview with me and a strict lease that regulates how many people can live there, how many cars they can park in the driveway, etc.
"The reputation there still isn't perfect, but it is getting better and as I buy up more units, it will get even better," Roeser said.
In 2008 he even bought a former troublesome tavern near Morningside and is now renting it to the proprietor of a very popular Mexican taqueria.
Under the "Homes by OTTO" name, Roeser has also purchased 124 single-family homes in the 1950s-era, 5,000-house Meadowdale subdivision. He is renovating and selling them for between $125,000 and $150,000. There are nine of these homes now under construction and 76 on the market at www.homesbyotto.com. He has already sold 39 houses.
"I drove through Meadowdale one day in 2008 and realized that about 200 of the homes in there were vacant. People had gotten underwater on their loans and just abandoned the homes and they were a mess, covered with graffiti," Roeser said.
He realized he could buy houses in Meadowdale, tear them down to the studs, replace or repair plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning systems; add insulation; replace walls, flooring and all the appliances; put on a new roof and siding and still sell the houses for between $125,000 and $150,000 without losing money.
"But only fixing one house doesn't do anything to improve the neighborhood. You have to fix them all and that is what I am gradually trying to do," Roeser said.
"I am not trying to make a nickel on these homes," he said. "I just want my employees to be proud of where they live and work. We want this town to flourish because 40 percent of my 500 employees live in Carpentersville."
Jerry Skowronski, facilities manager for OTTO Engineering, oversees the work done on these houses by subcontractors and a general contractor.
Skowronski realized early on that it was cheaper and more efficient to gut the homes and start over rather than labor on patchwork repairs. So in a five- or six-week period, every Homes by OTTO house undergoes a complete renovation from the inside out. There is an extensive structural inspection and then everything is rebuilt with energy-efficient materials and quality workmanship before being put on the market with a full warranty.
In 2012 alone, Homes by OTTO spent $105,000 on building permits from the village of Carpentersville.
"It is so rewarding when you get people into these houses who have never owned a home before and never thought they would have the opportunity," Skowronski said.
Wendy Martinez, a quality control clerk at OTTO for the past 14 years, purchased one of the Meadowdale homes a year ago after several years of renting from OTTO in Morningside.
"I love it," she said of her house, which she shares with her two young children. "I never thought I would be able to own a home and now I have a three-bedroom home with a basement, a two-car garage and a nice kitchen.
"It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to be a homeowner and its means happiness for my children. It is a nice, quiet neighborhood and two of my family members live down the street," the Carpentersville native said.
"OTTO has been great for Carpentersville," Martinez said. "Everyone is taking more pride in it now that the streets are cleaner and safer."
Kurt Albrecht, a Meadowdale homeowner who lives next door to a home purchased by OTTO and refurbished, agrees.
"OTTO is doing a great thing by improving the houses in our neighborhood that are run down. You don't see a lot of businesses putting back into their communities the way OTTO does in Carpentersville. They are fantastic people," Albrecht said.
Today Roeser has a real estate agent, Russ Morehead of Realty World Fox Valley Inc., marketing the homes he rebuilds. His Homes by OTTO "For Sale" signs proclaim "This home is being refurbished by OTTO Engineering to help preserve the value of the neighborhood."
And it is working. Roeser said their work is changing the character of the entire Meadowdale neighborhood, convincing neighbors that they can now invest in their homes and remain in the neighborhood. Other investors are also buying houses and refurbishing them, thanks to OTTO's influence, and there is even an active Neighborhood Watch program within the subdivision.
"I am not trying to be a philanthropist," he said. "I simply want to be a catalyst for change in Carpentersville."
What he didn't anticipate, however, was the incredible good will that his work has brought to him and OTTO Engineering. He gets letters from appreciative residents, renters and others on a regular basis and is often told stories about OTTO employees being stopped in local stores and restaurants and complimented on the good works of their employer.
"It is very rewarding what can happen when you expend a little effort," Roeser said. "I believe in the free market system and when I am done with all of this, it will have cost the taxpayer $0 and it will have cost me $0. And in the meantime I am employing trades people and a Realtor and am saving some neighborhoods and making nice places for people to live. Every businessperson can do this. They just don't."
In addition, he said, "since we want the OTTO brand to mean something, we have made our applications for homeownership very demanding. Our standards are high, but we are also offering lots of financial assistance, including furnishing a $10,000 down payment to returning servicemen and women in a bow to the fact that the Meadowdale neighborhood was built in the 1950s to house the families of servicemen returning from World War II."
In fact, Homes By OTTO will have a billboard along I-90 proclaiming this offer to the ex-military, starting sometime in March.
Other buyers are provided with mortgage assistance by local banks through a special arrangement with OTTO. Buyers with reasonable credit scores may qualify for a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage at market rates. Down payment and closing costs generally total approximately $5,400 for a Meadowdale home while the monthly payments generally end up around $1,200 (include principal, interest, taxes and insurance).
Those with less enviable credit scores may qualify for special assistance from Kane County or from OTTO.
For more information about Homes By OTTO, call (847) 826-2355.