Bensenville working hard to dispel 'fastest-dying town' label

  • Bensenville Village President Frank Soto greets residents Philip Buzzo and Eliza Flores at a summer concert series the village sponsors. The concerts and other events are helping pull together the once-fractious community.

      Bensenville Village President Frank Soto greets residents Philip Buzzo and Eliza Flores at a summer concert series the village sponsors. The concerts and other events are helping pull together the once-fractious community. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
By Sarah Horn
Posted8/16/2010 12:01 AM

A low point in Bensenville's rocky recent history came 20 months ago when it was decreed No. 1 among "America's Fastest-Dying Towns" by a national publication.

Forbes magazine cited the blue-collar village for a loss of jobs and growing poverty rate. People and businesses were moving out and no one was moving in. Bensenville, the magazine said, had been hit harder than towns dependent on the ailing auto industry.

 

The gloomy news came about the time Bensenville, cash strapped and out of allies, had given up the fight to stop expansion of nearby O'Hare International Airport.

Bensenville's decades-long fight to keep O'Hare expansion from wiping out a portion of the village once enjoyed support from virtually all adjacent towns and even the DuPage County Board. The battle was expensive - $10 million by one estimate - and one by one, the county and other communities stopped battling the city of Chicago and its relentless will and resources to push through the expansion.

Bensenville was beset with other problems: unprecedented squabbling, characterized by score of lawsuits among the village, businesses and other governments. The village was substantially in debt, too.

Also last year, the 24-year reign of Village President John Geils ended. To many, Geils was the face of O'Hare opposition. Residents, though, may have had enough of the fight, too, and last April elected Frank Soto, who vowed to cut the best deal with Chicago.

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A few months after he took office, Soto negotiated a $16 million settlement from Chicago, which also agreed to pay for an environmental consultant to observe strict demolition standards and other safeguards.

But that was just the beginning. Soto has pledged to "stop the bleeding," and is trying to mend fences. An attorney by trade, he's accomplished much of that by ending the array of lawsuits aimed at the village. The town also is working with the state on a railroad track rerouting aimed at unclogging a notoriously congested intersection.

Moreover, Soto is reaching out to local merchants, trying to re-brand the village as business-friendly.

So far, the business community says, it's working.

Civic groups that once wouldn't even speak to each other are now co-hosting new community and charity events and holiday parties.

"A lot of people are donating their time to make this town friendlier," said Michelle Milewski, Bensenville Chamber of Commerce vice president. "There's a synergy now that wasn't here before."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

End the lawsuits

Soto and others attribute Bensenville's evident decay and lack of infrastructure improvements to the fight against O'Hare.

"It's no wonder why young families were not moving in," said Soto, a 20-year resident. "Part of Bensenville's problem was the public perception of what was going on; there was this perception of total destruction, when really a small area (targeted for demolition) had been in place for 10 years."

One of Soto's early acts as mayor was to settle with Chicago over O'Hare.

"Once we reached an agreement, they honored it," he said.

In January, more lawsuits were settled.

According to the village, litigation between the village and Bensenville Park District goes back two decades. It involved an array of issues, but much of the feuding in recent years stemmed from the village's refusal to allow the park district to operate beer carts on its White Pines Golf Course.

Soto asked two village trustees to meet with the park district to resolve the issues. It was decided that money the park district owed the village for attorney fees instead would be used to create a plan for controlling flooding at Veterans Park, and the park district would carry it out.

"There were people who wouldn't want to even speak to the park district," said Robert Jarecki, director of parks and recreation. "People now call you up and ask you, 'Do you need anything?'

"My ability to work with the present village manager is like night and day," he added. "I can call him up and get answers, whereas before, that was next to impossible to get done. The animosity is completely gone."

Budget balancing

Using some of the airport settlement money, Soto began paying off debts and balancing the budget, which was officially amended in March. He said his team was able to reduce a debt of $65 million to $42 million and set aside money to pay other debts.

"There are bonds coming in next year and they (the previous administration) weren't putting money aside to pay them. I have no idea what they were planning to do," Soto said. "All of the funds were depleted and there was no operating money at all."

Soto also ended a special taxing district a year early - an idea that was in the works under Geils, his supporters say. That freed up money that had been withheld from other taxing bodies. Bensenville schools, Soto said, especially needed it.

The new budget also allots $7 million in funding to resurface local roads and sidewalks and revamp the industrial area.

And Soto took a look at property that was costing the village money - such as the now-closed Legends of Bensenville golf course. He says the interest alone on the golf course debt is $164,000 a year. He also said he renegotiated the contract with The Edge Ice Arena, putting an end to what he characterized as "backdoor deals" such as allowing the Chicago Blackhawks to practice for free in exchange for season tickets.

The village also is seeking new revenue sources. That strategy netted a $1 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration for land use planning.

Better business

Many members of Bensenville's industrial park marched on village hall in October 2008, protesting a special surcharge that increased their water rates a whopping 800 percent on average. Soto has eliminated the $1.74 million surcharge, and in turn, more than 150 lawsuits filed against Bensenville were dropped.

"I can't tell you how much hatred there was (by business people toward the village), how badly they've been treated," Milewski said.

A major flood control and street improvement project had to be scaled back to accommodate the surcharge's elimination.

According to Soto, Geils ran a confrontational system that drove businesses out of town. Ending the surcharge was Soto's way of extending an olive branch to business.

Geils, first elected in 1985, did not respond to calls and e-mails. His supporters say he deserves credit for numerous actions. Geils secured millions in federal soundproofing dollars, oversaw ambitious community redevelopment, brought in federal prosecutors to investigate allegations of local police corruption and, amid financial hardship more than a decade ago, convinced local taxing bodies to share funds for common village goals. He also organized a community task force to try to keep local teens from joining gangs.

But, even his supporters would agree, Geils ruled with an iron fist.

"Sure, there were times we butted heads on the board," said Trustee Patricia Johnson, whose tenure began with Geils. "But the man respected your opinion if you backed it up with facts. They never give him any credit for the good things he did. He had a passion for this community like nothing else I'd ever seen before. He believed his residents and his community deserved the very best and if it meant fighting the city of Chicago, that's what he was going to do. I can't imagine any other mayor not doing the same exact thing to protect his community."

Johnson said the Geils' administration long tried to negotiate with the park district. She also argued Soto wouldn't have been able to negotiate the $16 million O'Hare settlement had it not been for Geils' decision to purchase some of the homes in question to give the village more leverage.

As for the budget woes, Johnson said: "We always paid our bills. We made payroll. We approved a budget that had $3.2 million in cash reserves. Whether you agreed with Geils or not, this community is no worse off financially or otherwise today than any other community, where they're canceling festivals and fireworks celebrations. We're still doing all that and while making other improvements, such as our new village hall, all while fighting O'Hare.

"I think what a lot of people forget is if Geils didn't fight, you wouldn't have a town to worry about."

Still, Soto said, strict, subjective building codes and permitting procedures made it expensive and nearly impossible for businesses to settle in town, so his administration replaced the system with an international, standardized set of codes, enabling businesses to calculate their costs in advance.

The chamber of commerce and village are working in tandem to rebuild relationships with businesses already in town, and attract new ones. For such businesses that have fallen off the public's radar, the chamber throws "Grand Re-Opening" parties to attract residents' attention. It also plans marketing and social media seminars for businesses and has taken on the role of a Welcome Wagon for new ones.

"We perform a role that the village doesn't have time to do," Milewski said.

Hispanic-Americans make up a big portion of Bensenville's community, and the village has some fence-mending to do there, too.

Señor Lopez, a restaurant at 120 W. Green St., used to rely on private parties because of the tall, opaque fencing it was required to have up around its patio. That has since been replaced by open fencing.

"Now, the general public is flocking over," Milewski said.

The long road back

Soto knows full well that Bensenville will never be the next Silicon Valley, but he has high hopes for the future.

The village held a citizens' summit in November, has a new economic development team in place and also hired The Lakota Group, consultants specializing in planning and design solutions, to help Bensenville utilize and market its assets.

"You don't have any transportation costs when you're next to the airport," Soto said. "There's no reason why we should not be taking advantage of our position."

To better that position, Soto serves as co-chairman of the Western O'Hare Corridor Implementation Team to improve western access to the airport.

When he heard that the O'Hare project involved relocation of one of the two sets of train tracks at Irving Park and York roads, Soto said he approached the Illinois Department of Transportation to fund the moving of the other set simultaneously.

He said the $48 million project is in the engineering stages and construction should begin in 2012. Moving the tracks will ease congestion at the intersection, where the crossing gates are lowered for two of every eight hours in the typical commuting day.

Better planning is the final part of the picture, with the village putting in place a 15-year plan.

"There will be no wandering off the path; we will put one step in front of another" Soto said.

Bensenville, to be sure, still has a way to go in shedding its image as a hardscrabble community on the verge of being symbolically bulldozed by the O'Hare expansion.

Overcoming the iron-fisted rule of the previous administration is a challenge, too, Soto says. But it's worth it.

"There were so many people before me that tried to stand up, but the village would go after them. You see this thing progressing downward, that at some point, you have to fight. Every day we have something to improve."