At 50, Pheasant Run still writing the recipe for success
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Behind the front desk of Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles is a depiction of sprawling farmland, a gentle reminder of what used to be the most prominent view from any of the guest rooms.
Now celebrating its 50th year, the iconic location is situated among a mass of construction, a sluggish economy and a mall that makes a ghost town appear bustling. Those are perfect conditions to relaunch the resort back into the prominence that once made it the main reason people came to St. Charles.
The resort opened on Feb. 15, 1963, on the site of a former 175-acre dairy farm owned by one of St. Charles' most well-known figures, Col. Edward Baker. Developer Edward McArdle purchased the property with a plan to turn the location into an entertainment resort, an idea that at first may have seemed out of tune with such a rural setting.
Indeed, the name Pheasant Run comes from the many fowl that inhabited the property at the time the resort opened. But the early big-name acts conjured an image of a Las Vegas review.
Former Mayor Fred Norris remembers the early years of the resort as a time of big ideas and big growth for the city, two facets of the community's history that the resort played a large role in.
"Ed McArdle was a hands-on operator," Norris said. "He was a big personality. He came up with the idea to build this place way, way out on the edge of St. Charles. Then he surprised everyone with the success he found in bringing conventions and activities to Pheasant Run. I thought he had the Midas touch. The man knew how to put a deal together."
Norris recalls the resort as a place where people used to go have some drinks or business meetings and even catch the occasional cabaret singer. The first theater at the resort opened in 1964. The first star act was Mimi Hines, a dancer who made several appearances on "The Tonight Show" in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Even bigger names followed: William Shatner, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Bob Denver and Larry Hagman. Several of them left handprints and signatures in concrete blocks throughout the property.
"This place started as a dream of the McArdle family and has really evolved through time," said Tim Foley, general manager of the resort. "As you move through the property, you can see that it is dynamically different, according to the time.
"You have to remember, at one point in time this was really a destination. You really had to drive what seemed like a long way to get here. So at the center of the plan was the idea that they wanted you to be here and be entertained. This had to be the place to go and have an experience."
Foley says Pheasant Run may have been the first location of its kind to offer live dinner theater to guests. It also was the first resort in the nation to offer an indoor/outdoor pool, Foley said.
It was all part of a growth boom that started with 184 guest rooms. Then came a golf course, a country club, a second live theater, a salon, multiple restaurants on the property, and even a replica of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, complete with shops.
"The idea for Bourbon Street was the McArdle family loved Bourbon Street," Foley said. "And if you can't be there, you might as well build it here."
As the resort grew, Norris said, so did its importance to the city and the local economy.
"In their early days, St. Charles was the labor force for the place," he said. "All the kids worked there. My neighbor worked at the banquets. It was all local people, from bellhops to caddies. I don't know how many kids had their college paid for from jobs they had there."
Foley said that's a key element of the resort even today. Some of the current employees have been there 30 or 40 years.
"You can come here and then you come back and keep coming back because you know the staff by their first names, and they know you," Foley said.
But perhaps the move that solidified the customer base that has kept Pheasant Run pushing along through the tough economy was the addition of the Mega Center conference space in the early 1980s. The resort has a long list of annual conventions and trade shows that fuel not only its own bottom line but the health of area restaurants and other local hotels.
"When certain shows come to town, the restaurants know and the residents know, and they gear up for them," said Jeanne Hahn, the resort's director of sales and marketing. "You can walk into a restaurant and they know, 'Oh, these are Kennedy Home Show people.'"
Foley said there's no doubt places like the Mega Center figured in the business plans of several local establishments when they decided to come to St. Charles.
"In the downtown, when the market there was slow, when the mall was not, is not providing foot traffic, we've been a constant provider for that flow of business," Foley said. "Every weekend we are pushing literally thousands of people through here."
But the Mega Center almost wasn't part of Pheasant Run. At the time the idea for the convention space was proposed, two major fires in Las Vegas convention venues in 1980 and 1981 killed nearly 100 people combined, Norris said.
"We had a major challenge with the addition of the Mega Center," Norris said. "Ed McArdle and I bumped heads pretty strenuously because we didn't have the fire equipment that could reach as high as what they were talking about. But once it was open, that place gave St. Charles a totally new identity at the same time that we were redeveloping our commercial base."
It wasn't the only time Pheasant Run and St. Charles officials bumped heads. When city officials announced they were creating a hotel/motel tax, the McArdle family threatened to de-annex from the city.
"They said they would not pay it, and they took out full-page newspaper ads to get me kicked out of office," Norris said. "But they ended up going along because DuPage County said they were going to create their own hotel/motel tax."
In recent years, the economy has been more of a drag on the resort than any tax. The location has grown to 473 hotel rooms, a 36-hole golf course and 100,000 square feet of meeting space on 250 acres. But in 2011, the resort missed a $170,000 payment on a $27.3 million loan.
A foreclosure suit resulted, but a negotiated restructuring of the loan silenced the financial warning sirens, and the McArdle family retained ownership. They are not intensely involved in the day-to-day operations of the resort, management said.
Foley, who oversaw the remake of the Doral Eaglewood Conference Resort & Spa in Itasca, said the future for Pheasant Run isn't to create flash-in-the pan attractions. Rather the plan is continue modernization while keeping all the same feel of the resort that keeps long-term customers coming back.
"There is something valuable about knowing what you're going to get," Foley said. "But guests expect their iPads to work fast. They expect the TV to be just like the one they have at home. They expect a variety of dining experiences. But by style, we are very comfortable in what we are."
Foley said the resort is heavily recruiting corporate clients. Management is also courting new retail shops for its Bourbon Street. And all the while, Pheasant Run will remain Pheasant Run.
"You can always go someplace else for less," Foley said. "But we're not going to be a Hilton one day and then a Marriott the next. Our brand is us. Right now, we're going like gangbusters. We're having a great year. And we're going to come out of this economy strong."
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