Mount Prospect Mayor Irvana Wilks will step down from her post later this spring, bringing an end to more than 25 years of service to the village.
It will be a bittersweet moment for Wilks, but she said she'll be leaving the village in very capable hands.
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"I believe in making room for new leaders, and we've always had a wealth of volunteers and active citizens in this community," Wilks said. "I know that Mount Prospect will continue to thrive in the future."
Wilks, 67, has been mayor since 2005. She served as a village trustee before that, starting in 1991. Before becoming an elected official, Wilks served on commissions in Mount Prospect and beyond, including the Mount Prospect District Development and Redevelopment Commission (five years) and the Cook County Economic Development Advisory Committee (15 years).
During her time of service, Wilks saw Mount Prospect's downtown go through periods of boom and bust. She saw Randhurst Shopping Center, the Chicago area's first indoor mall, morph into Randhurst Village, an open-air "lifestyle center." She watched as a young resident named Lee DeWyze rose to national prominence on the singing-competition show "American Idol." She worked with neighboring leaders on important flood control initiatives and led the village through a period of painful staffing cuts.
Looking back on it all, Wilks said she's proud of where Mount Prospect is today.
"I think we've come really far, and during some extremely difficult economic times," she said.
Wilks, a native of Kansas, moved to Mount Prospect in 1969 after her husband landed a job in the Chicago area. She said it didn't take long before she was volunteering and becoming active in local Republican organizations. Wilks attributes her interest in community service in part to her experience as a journalist. She studied journalism at the University of Kansas and did some reporting for a paper in Wichita before moving to Illinois.
"I think it planted a seed," she said of the experience. "I covered some meetings, saw how much goes into a job in public service."
A few accomplishments stick out for Wilks when she looks back on her tenure as mayor. One is the Levee 37 flood-control project along the Des Plaines River. The project provides much-needed protection to homes in Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights that historically have flooded after major storms. The project took years to get under way, in part because a complex network of government agencies at the local, state and federal levels was involved.
Another is the transformation of Randhurst from an aging indoor mall into an open-air retail center with a Main Street-style design. The overhauled shopping center, now called Randhurst Village, includes a mix of retailers (Carsons, Bed, Bath & Beyond) and restaurants (Billy Goat Tavern, Pei Wei).
In both cases, Wilks credits work done by her predecessor, former Mayor Gerald "Skip" Farley.
"Mayor Farley helped get the ball rolling on those," she said. "He was instrumental in the formation of the Levee 37 project, and Randhurst came about because the developer saw what we'd done under Mayor Farley with the downtown. The developer saw that we had the political courage to undertake a project like Randhurst Village. So I really believe that throughout my time as mayor, I've stood on other people's shoulders."
Wilks said she's proud of other accomplishments, as well, including Myers Place, a supportive-housing development for people with mental illness that's being constructed at Dempster Street and Busse Road, and the Community Connections Center, which provides library and educational services to residents on the south end of the village.
Her tenure included some difficult times as well, mostly due to the crashing of the economy in 2008. In 2010, the village, faced with a budget crisis, had to lay off 10 percent of its workers.
"That was a very difficult time," she said. "This is a small enough community that the employees are a tight-knit group. It really is like a family. So to have to let people go was very sad."
The economy also put a damper on redevelopment in downtown, which had started to blossom in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"When the economy tanked, all housing activity totally stopped," she said. "And it was very hard to lease the smaller commercial spaces. We had to scale back our efforts there. It was frustrating because the downtown was showing such great new life, but things come in their own time. I'm excited by the planning we've been doing for the downtown in the past year. I think good things are on the horizon."
Barring an unexpected development at the polls, Wilks will be succeeded as mayor by Arlene Juracek, a current village trustee who's running unopposed for the mayor's seat this spring. The election will take place on April 9.
"I know Arlene will keep the village moving forward," Wilks said.
Looking ahead to her post-mayoral life, Wilks said she and her husband plan to remain in Mount Prospect for the near future. Wilks, a longtime writer and member of the Barrington Women's Writers Club, said she plans to focus more energy on her poetry and fiction in retirement.
"I have a novel that's been gathering dust recently," she said. "I will definitely clean the dust off it. And I have other writing projects in mind, too. I look forward to having more time for that kind of work, which I really love.
"But of course I'll miss this job. Especially the people I've worked with these past years. Our staff here is so professional and so dedicated. And all the people I've gotten a chance to meet through various meetings and so on -- I'll miss seeing them too. But I'll be around, and like I said earlier, Mount Prospect has a bright future ahead of it."