New TV ads spotlight Elk Grove pinball maker's decision to stay local

A Melrose Park pinball machine manufacturer was courted by officials from three states as it tried to find a larger warehouse for its ever-growing business.

Company officials even received a call from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who tried to lure them across the border.

But the pinball wizards only moved 10 miles away to Elk Grove Village, and now they're getting some free publicity because of it.

Stern Pinball is the subject of the latest Elk Grove television commercial, part of a village-funded $500,000 advertising campaign that launched last spring. It includes TV, radio and print advertisements, as well as billboards throughout the O'Hare region. The 30-second TV spot has been running on local stations for the past week.

In the commercial, CEO Gary Stern talks about moving to Elk Grove, even though the company got a personal phone call pitch from Walker, as well as officials in Indiana and Tennessee.

"It's a good story why we came here. And pinball is cool," Stern told the Daily Herald. "If you had a story about a screw company or bread baker who came to Elk Grove, it would be for the same important reasons we came here. But it's pinball. It's more likely to get people to watch."

Elk Grove launched its "Beyond Business Friendly" advertising campaign in May - the same month Stern Pinball moved into its 110,000-square-foot warehouse at 2001 Lunt Ave. from a 40,000-square-foot space in Melrose Park.

The following month, the company's new facility was host to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who came to promote his turnaround agenda.

Mayor Craig Johnson was at that event, and after chatting with Stern, suggested the video production company making Elk Grove's commercials do a spot on the pinball company.

"I said what a great way to promote how Elk Grove is a choice for manufacturing," Johnson said. "In fact, perhaps the next president of the United States couldn't even convince them. Elk Grove won out."

So what was it that drew Stern to Elk Grove?

Stern and his business partners explored locations in other states as they began their initial research. They touched base with economic development officials in Indiana and Tennessee, each pitching their attractive tax rates, workforce and supplier bases.

That's around the time Wisconsin's governor called Dave Peterson, who leads a small group of investors in Stern Pinball.

"It was a 'Could we have the governor call you?' type of thing," Stern said of Walker's staff.

Ultimately, Stern said he decided to stay in the Chicago market because most of the company's suppliers are in the region - from the manufacturers that produce the quarter-mile strands of wires that go in each machine, to those that make the wood cabinet body of the machine. There's some 3,500 individual parts that make up one pinball machine, he said.

It was also the case that most of the company's 250 employees have special expertise putting the machines together, some that have been doing it even before the current iteration of the company came about in 1986.

Stern and his associates had a list of 100 buildings in the Chicago area that they considered, and made site visits to 40. One of the things they were looking for was a place with enough parking for all the employees.

When they settled on the warehouse in Elk Grove, village officials toured the old factory in Melrose Park and chatted about what company had in mind for the new place, Stern said.

"One of our guys worked closely with them, and they were great," he said.

It also helps that the remodeled warehouse is within walking distance of a popular Chicago hot dog stand.

"We're trying to convince the mayor to build us a tunnel to Portillo's," joked Jody Dankberg, the company's director of marketing and licensing.

The Stern ad is one of three TV commercials Elk Grove has distributed so far, with plans to continue running them through the end of the year. The advertising campaign is being funded by proceeds from a tax increment financing district established last year.

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