Naperville mayor wants to take on development next
Being the major of a large, influential city is a challenging and time-consuming job, and Naperville's Steve Chirico wants it for another four years.
He wants the job because of what he says he's accomplished: Working with the rest of the council to set the city on the right financial track, focus on public safety innovations and bring more businesses to diversify the tax base.
He wants the job because of what he says remains to be done: Continue advocacy at the state and regional levels, provide more housing for young adults and empty nesters and launch redevelopment along 5th Avenue, near the Naperville Metra station.
Chirico, 58, has served as mayor of the state's fourth-largest city since May 2015, taking the position full-time and transitioning day-to-day operation of his company, Great Western Flooring, to his daughters. He faces a challenge in his quest for four more years from political newcomer Richard "Rocky" Caylor in the April 2 election.
With a dollars-and-sense demeanor, Chirico has helped the city's public face transition from the cheerleading pride of the late Mayor George Pradel to a punctual and professional style focused on preserving and enhancing all of the positives that make Naperville stand out among suburbs.
"You don't want your city to deteriorate because it's not being maintained properly," he says.
Under his leadership, Chirico says, Naperville won't.
What's done so far
Taking office nearly four years ago as a hometown kid, a Naperville business owner and a former city council member, Chirico harnessed support to reset the city from a track that he said involved more than a decade of taking on debt, spending reserves and delaying maintenance.
He led the council in votes that raised the cost of living in Naperville by $255 in 2017, but set a course that he says helped maintain the city's AAA bond rating. The votes created the city's first home-rule sales tax in 2016, and increased taxes or fees on garbage pickup, phone communications, hotel/motel stays and electricity.
Raising such costs, Chirico says, helped the city reduce its debt from $120 million to $95.9 million and increase reserves from $25.5 million to an estimated $28.4 million.
"The financial strategy that we have in place going forward is smart and sustainable," he says. "That is a long-term financial strategy that I think is good governance, and people recognize that."
During Chirico's tenure, the city also implemented shifts in emergency response that address concerns about mental illness and addiction. Programs launched include Connect for Life, in which police offer connections to treatment for people who seek help overcoming drugs, and PulsePoint, a fire department app that allows citizens with CPR skills to respond when others are in need.
It's a "new way of thinking," Chirico says, and it aims not to solve issues with mental health or addiction through arrests, but to "recognize those social challenges and to provide resources."
The local economy has brought its share of challenges to Chirico as mayor, mainly in the form of large and visible retail vacancies.
The city still has two former Dominick's stores sitting dormant, just as they have been since the company left the region in early 2014. And high vacancy rates along East Ogden Avenue in the Iroquois Center and Ogden Mall developments make Chirico's critics quick to overlook the other small businesses that he says have revitalized some properties along the corridor on the city's northeast side.
Despite a lack of obvious progress in the two largely vacant strip centers, Chirico says the tide could be turning. Mall owners, he says, are beginning to be open to out-of-the-box thinking, such as new zoning designations to allow nontraditional uses.
"I think that we're going to start to see some action on their side to start to invest in the area, and that's really the key," Chirico says. "They need to be a partner. We can't do it for them."
What's left to do
Chirico calls his job as mayor "immensely gratifying" as he gets to make decisions and take actions daily that improve individual lives and the broader community.
He's taken on regional and state issues as well, serving as vice president of the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference, and recently being appointed to a task force under new Gov. JB Pritzker that will examine ways to streamline the administration of public safety pensions. It was one of his goals to use his platform as mayor to push for local legislative needs.
"We're a big city and we're an influential city and we need to be involved," he says.
One thing Chirico calls "a miss," however, in the planning of Naperville, is its lack of urban-style housing to cater to young workers or empty nesters. Both groups are apt to want to live near dining, entertainment and shopping, not in the middle of some sprawling subdivision carved from a cornfield, he says.
And both groups have a hard time finding what they want in Naperville, leading to a bit of a brain-drain in an exodus of recent college graduates.
"We don't have the younger generation staying around here," Chirico says. "We invest in this world-class education for them, and then they move to the city."
A planning process underway for the past two years to revitalize the 5th Avenue corridor near the Naperville Metra station could help solve some of these housing discrepancies, Chirico says. But the process must reach decisions about sticking points related to the DuPage Children's Museum location and commuter parking before moving on to a more nuanced discussion of housing types.
Chirico knows his first four years in office have been largely financially oriented. The next four, he says, would broaden the focus, all in an effort to maintain and improve the city.
"For a community to be really well-balanced," he says, "there's a lot of other things that need to be done."
FYIThe April 2 mayoral race in Naperville features incumbent Steve Chirico and challenger Richard "Rocky" Caylor. Daily Herald Staff Writer Marie Wilson recently sat down with both candidates. Today's story focuses on Chirico; Thursday's focused on Caylor. Later this winter we'll be featuring Q&As with both candidates as part of our ongoing campaign coverage.