'Best-kept secret' no more, Villa Park makes top places to live lists

Villa Park Village President Al Bulthuis calls his town "one of the best-kept secrets in Illinois."

But with a ranking as No. 8 on Money magazine's 2017 list of the 10 Best Places in America to Raise a Family Now, and a spot as No. 28 on the magazine's overall list of Best Places to Live in America, it might no longer be a secret, and its reach could expand outside Illinois.

"This honor confirms my belief we're doing a lot of things right," Village Manager Richard Keehner said.

Money magazine considered school quality, access to libraries, safety, economic health, diversity, parks and the percentage of people younger than 50 when it was making its rankings of 2,400 places across the country with populations between 10,000 and 100,000.

The magazine said Villa Park excelled, especially in terms of family friendliness, low crime rates, modest unemployment, income levels above the state median, a reasonable median home sale price of $263,000 and recreation opportunities including the Illinois Prairie Path and a nine-hole golf course. It was the only Illinois community to make the Top 10 list.

Leaders of the village of roughly 22,000 agree these are among the great things about their "hidden gem" of a town, sandwiched between two other highly regarded suburbs of Elmhurst and Lombard.

But there's more to the "Garden Village" than the data-crunchers of Money magazine could see. Here are reasons Villa Park leaders say their town is a great place to raise a family and live ...

Small-town feel

Daniel Krause, principal of Willowbrook High School in Villa Park for 10 years, says the village has a "small-town feel in the middle of the Chicago suburbs."

People in grocery stores, bakeries and coffee shops actually know each other. Neighbors support each other. It's a warm feeling.

Krause contributes to that tight-knit feel with things as simple as summer barbecues where he grills at a gazebo and Willowbrook teens hang out.

"Those kinds of things happen in Villa Park," said Scott Helton, superintendent of DuPage High School District 88. "And they just don't happen everywhere."

Chain convenience

Not always known for its beauty, North Avenue recently has undergone a revitalization with several new national chains, says Jan Fiola, economic development director.

Among them are quick-bite staples Chipotle, Firehouse Subs, Dunkin' Donuts and Wendy's.

"These are all great assets for families in Villa Park," Fiola says.

Parks and trails

Bulthuis, elected this spring as village president, says parks are among the best amenities in Villa Park. There's the Prairie Path, which Money magazine noted, but also the Salt Creek Trail and the Great Western Trail.

The Great Western, especially, is a highlight these days, Fiola says.

The trail begins from a new gateway on South Villa Avenue, near what's becoming a more vibrant spot, as the village's first downtown develops near the Ovaltine Court apartment complex (a renovation of a former Ovaltine chocolate factory) and a popular new brewery called More Brewing.

"People now can find the trailhead and enjoy the 12 miles that goes through DuPage County," Fiola says.

Culture of giving

Villa Park leaders say adults in town model the everyday practice of giving back, which becomes contagious.

School, civic, police and fire leaders are involved with service clubs such as Rotary and Kiwanis. High school students mentor children. Elementary kids contribute to food and clothing drives. Krause mobilizes his Willowbrook teens to shovel snowy driveways for seniors.

The act of helping becomes ingrained.

"That's just who our students are," Krause says. "They don't know any different."

Collaborative spirit

A few years ago, governmental units in Villa Park started meeting regularly to learn about each other's initiatives and avoid duplication, Helton says.

Creative ideas spread fast, and people get involved. Seven out of 10 Willowbrook students participate in some sort of extracurricular activity, and teachers aren't the only ones there to support them.

But teachers know the drill. Some who grew up in Villa Park have returned to teach where they once learned.

"It just perpetuates that belief in community," Krause said.

Library growth

Money magazine valued libraries in its ranking for families, and Villa Park's is poised to grow. Voters this spring approved a tax increase to fund a $10.6 million project to renovate and expand the 48-year-old building at 305 S. Ardmore Ave. The work will improve accessibility, add parking, create large community meeting rooms, increase student study spaces and add more room for teens, adults, computers, technology and quiet reading.

"We are excited to serve as a focal point in the community," Library Director Sandra Hill says, "for many years to come."

  South Villa Avenue in Villa Park is home to a popular new brewery, More Brewing, and is developing into the village's first downtown. Bev Horne/
  South Villa Avenue is turning into the first downtown for Villa Park, which has been ranked 8th best place in America to raise a family and the 28th best place to live by Money magazine. Bev Horne/
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