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Article updated: 5/6/2013 5:12 AM

Looking at Arlene Mulder's legacy in Arlington Heights

By Melissa Silverberg

Arlene Mulder hasn't given much thought to her legacy.

In the past week, the retiring Arlington Heights village president has been cleaning out 20 years of paperwork, photos and memories from the village hall that she often spent more time at than her own home.

Between taking carloads of boxes to her basement and armfuls of papers to the recycling bin, Mulder made one last lobbying trip to Springfield, as the Senate passed a gambling bill that would allow slots at Arlington International Racecourse -- though the measure still has to pass the House and Gov. Pat Quinn's desk.

She drove back in time to chair a Friday morning meeting of the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.

Friday afternoon she was sitting in her temporary village hall office -- she abandoned the mayor's office early so it could be made ready for its new occupant -- cleaning out binders from old Metra board meetings, just so she could return the binders.

All this while waiting for word from her son and daughter-in-law who were about to have twins, Al and Arlene Mulder's sixth and seventh grandchildren.

So, legacy -- how Mulder will be remembered for 34 years of public service to Arlington Heights and the Northwest suburbs -- hasn't been on the former teacher's mind, even as her good friend and colleague, Mayor-elect Tom Hayes, prepares to be sworn in Monday night.

But many around her say one doesn't have to look far to see all that she has accomplished -- a revitalized downtown that other suburbs have emulated, a heightened reputation regionally and nationally, and a network of strong relationships between the village government, park district and business community, among others.

Her personal style as mayor -- upbeat, personal and seeming to draw energy from the endless public events instead of being worn down by them -- is often credited as the means by which Mulder has been able to find and foster success.

Different downtown

When Mulder took office in 1993, downtown Arlington Heights looked very different from what it does today. Dunton Tower, opened in 1986, was one of the only tall buildings and many people worried it meant their quiet, homespun downtown was about to change.

It was -- Arlington Heights was subscribing to a new theory that said if you want to save a suburban downtown, first bring in upper-class residents and the businesses will follow.

In October 1997, the village board approved the Arlington Town Square development. Mulder prepared a speech for that board meeting, telling a council chamber packed with people, many of whom disagreed with her, "I strongly believe this is in the best interests of all Arlington Heights."

Now with a mix of residences, retail, restaurants and culture, downtown Arlington Heights is considered by many a jewel, or at least successful enough that other suburbs have emulated it. It has been noticed outside the Northwest suburbs as well.

"Her administration was instrumental in the revitalization of downtown Arlington Heights, which boasts a thriving arts and cultural scene," said Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, of Evanston.

But in between, carrying out the vision for downtown was at times very difficult, says former Trustee Steve Daday.

"There were a lot of difficult decisions and some significant differences of opinion, but she never tried to force her opinion on other trustees," said Daday, a trustee from 1989 to 2005. "Her role was to be a consensus builder. She tried to bring people together."

She came to the boardroom with the mindset that to disagree was to disagree with an idea, not the person behind it, he said.

And, she could give up and move on. A few years ago the village board was locked in a contentious vote over whether to increase the tax levy. The board voted seven times and was tied 4-4 every time. Mulder changed her vote on the eighth roll call, preferring a loss over gridlock.

"Politics is only temporary," Mulder said Friday, shrugging off the dispute.

Not everything was a victory. Despite intensive lobbying by Mulder, the track does not as yet have slot machines. Her administration is blamed for the cost overruns on the new village hall, referred to by detractors as the "Taj Mahal."

And the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, originally pitched as being self-sustaining through ticket sales and fundraising, is surviving only with the help of the village, which stepped in to buy much of the building and set up a fund to contribute an annual subsidy. The money comes from an arts and entertainment tax, not property taxes, but that hasn't stopped complaints about the village supporting a business that is not a core service.

Mulder, however, considers Metropolis a success, particularly since it contributes an estimated $5 million in economic activity to Arlington Heights each year.

"Metropolis is a gem," she said, pointing out that other suburban performing arts centers get municipal subsidies. "It's a concept that still needs to grow into its own, but I'm confident it will get there. Later on we'll question why we ever doubted it."

'It was a lifestyle'

Lauree Harp, Mulder's longtime friend and the chairwoman of last year's quasquicentennial celebration, says at one Fourth of July parade her 5-year-old granddaughter complained about the noise. All the sirens were going off at once, hurting her ears and making it hard to talk.

Harp pointed to Mulder. Go tell the mayor, she said.

Mulder got down to ground level with the girl and said, "That's a good question, I'll find out." She went to fire officials and asked if the parade couldn't be a little quieter.

"She would listen to anyone and if she didn't know the answer she would find the person who did," Harp said. "Even if she didn't agree with them, she was hearing them."

Mulder, whose attendance at events is legendary, forged relationships with the park district and library, the county, the school districts and, perhaps mostly, with the business community. She visited businesses to woo them and sang karaoke at chamber fundraisers.

"Her availability to businesses created a healthy environment because new or struggling businesses knew the mayor would make time for them," said Jon Ridler, executive director of the Arlington Heights chamber of commerce.

"It wasn't just an elected position for her; it was a lifestyle," Ridler said.

Mulder says she averages only three or four hours of sleep a night. Longtime friend Kris Stabler said even off the clock, the mayor is always thinking about the village.

"She doesn't leave it at the office," Stabler said. "People would be surprised at the hours after closing time she spends, working on different projects, returning phone calls. She's worked tirelessly for the betterment of the community."

Mulder says she looked at the residents as her boss. "I tried to show respect for them; whenever they had an event and asked me to come to it, I did," she said.

Hayes has joked he will have some very large shoes to fill starting Monday.

"Her legacy is her ability to establish relationships with all of these individuals and groups who make up our community and who are so critical to establishing the quality of life that we've enjoyed under Arlene for the past 20 years," he said.

But, at every farewell event and interview since announcing her retirement last September, Mulder has pushed off any claim to success to Village Manager Bill Dixon and his staff, as well as residents.

"I can never really take credit," she said. "I was just in the right place to orchestrate and help other people do their best work."

Mulder will bring one last meeting to order on Monday night, using the gavel that bears the name of John Woods, another iconic Arlington Heights mayor whom Mulder calls her patron saint. Once the meeting is called to order, Hayes will be sworn in and Mulder will step aside.

She says she will try to stay away from village hall, but she will never move away from Arlington Heights. She'll keep her seats on both the Metra board and the Noise Commission.

But between that work, time with the grandchildren, tending to her garden and traveling with Al, Mulder said she won't spend much of her retirement thinking about her legacy then, either.

"I hope people will say that I listened," Mulder said on Friday, sifting through papers in the temporary office. "I hope they will say that I tried to do my very best. I'm not a miracle worker, but maybe that I was able to foster the spirit of cooperation and hopefully be a good neighbor."

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