'We're the envy of what most cities want to be': Outgoing Naperville mayor reflects on his two terms
After eight years as mayor of Naperville, Steve Chirico is wrapping up his final week in office.
During his tenure, Chirico, 63, guided the city through an era of strong economic development and financial stability. He also dealt with unexpected setbacks caused by the pandemic, civil unrest and a devastating tornado.
Before being elected mayor in 2015, Chirico, a graduate of Naperville Central High School and owner of Great Western Flooring in Naperville, spent one term on the city council. Through the years, he's served on numerous commissions and volunteered for various organizations.
"It's really been an honor for me to serve," he said. "It's a pretty proud moment for me to complete the second term and do it in such a way that we're leaving the city in a better spot than when I came in."
As Scott Wehrli prepares to be sworn in Sunday as the new mayor, Chirico -- who chose not to run for a third term -- sat down with the Daily Herald to reflect on his decades of public service and talk about what's next.
Here is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Q: How long have you known this would be your last term?
A: I knew after the last election, I'm not doing that again. It's just nasty. And I didn't want to put my wife, my kids, my business -- you name it -- through that again. I don't think it's Naperville, necessarily, but I think it's our country that's divided. I like the job, and I believe I'm really good at the job. But it comes with that election process, and it's just too much.
Q: What was your proudest achievement as mayor?
A: Staff made a list of all the big boxes and all the big (parcels of land) that were unproductive. Last month, the last one went under contract. Every single one on the list was filled. And I'm pretty proud of the east Ogden corridor, how we were able to change the trajectory of that. One of our principles was to have a structurally sound budget, a balanced budget. And then, we wanted to reduce our debt by 25 percent and increase our cash reserves by 25 percent. We were able to do both of those and more. And we wanted to bring up our infrastructure investment to appropriate levels.
Q: Do you have regrets about anything you weren't able to accomplish?
A: Fifth Avenue Station (a proposed mixed-use development on a commuter parking lot near the downtown Metra station) is really the only thing I have regrets about, that we weren't able to get anything done there. Everybody agrees the 13 acres of blacktop we have out there is nothing good. We have the right plan. It's just going to take a council that has more political will.
Q: A lot of unexpected setbacks were thrust at Naperville during your tenure, especially during your second term. How do you reflect on the pandemic, the civil unrest downtown after the George Floyd killing and the 2021 tornado?
A: It was not a good time to be mayor in any kind of way. But as I reflect back on that time, I'm glad I was mayor because my personality and my demeanor fit well in a situation of crisis. I was able to handle it without making rash or knee-jerk decisions. I think it was important for the city to have someone to maintain that calm.
Q: What advice do you have for Scott Wehrli as the next mayor of Naperville?
A: No matter what decision you're making, it affects a lot of people. Eventually, you get around to everybody in the city who you've had to vote differently than they believe you should have. You're going to lose supporters. I would tell him to enjoy the honeymoon and get some things done early. Build a team and try to get everyone working productively together.
Q: What's in your future?
A: I'm not going to be at council meetings, and I'm not going to be asserting any influence I might have. I'm just going to let people govern. If they need me for any historic or institutional knowledge or help with transitioning, I'm more than willing to help. Obviously, I'm a liquor commissioner right now. If Scott were to ask me to stay, I'd be happy to. But I'm not going to be actively engaged.
Q: What will be your legacy as mayor of Naperville?
A: It has to be the financial impact on the city. Eight years seems like a long time, but it's not when you're trying to turn a ship like that. To turn over the city with tons of cash, not to mention federal money we didn't touch, they're going to be able to do a lot. And that's my gift, to make sure the city was on the right trajectory. We're the envy of what most cities want to be.