With the theme ‘if you build it, they will come,’ Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone spoke about the history of Forest Park, its prosperity and the key alliances that have turned it into a burgeoning, revitalized community at this year’s League of Women Voter’s State of the Villages Dinner March 4 at the Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park.

Accompanied by Oak Park President Joanne Trapani and River Forest Administrator Charles Biondo, who also delivered speeches, Calderone told the almost 160-person crowd that Forest Park is an up-and-coming community.

“Today they see a Forest Park on the move, reasonable housing at an affordable price and a community that is passionately customer-friendly,” Calderone said. “Prospective residents and businesses alike now have confidence in the community and its leaders, a trend that was all too bleak not too many years ago.”

He told the mostly River Forest and Oak Park crowd that, while he is aware of the town’s reputation as the “watering hole of the western suburbs” the number of liquor licenses in the town has actually decreased.

“Even this evening I overheard conversations where people said, ‘I love Forest Park; I like to go there to eat,’ and of course, most notably, people like to go there and enjoy a liquid refreshment,” he said. But “today Forest Park has 25 less liquor licenses than it did in the ’50s and ’60s.”

He added that this reputation probably began in the late 1800s, with Ferdinand Haase who “founded a park on the bank of the Des Plaines River, which is now known as Forest Home Cemetery. Forest Park was kind of the burial ground for the city of Chicago, so they would come out to Harlem [now Forest Park and River Forest], bury the dead, and what do we all do typically when we complete a funeral service?” joked Calderone.

Joking aside, Calderone touted the village’s fast-paced developments.

“It is not uncommon at all today that people are saying, ‘What’s going on in Forest Park?’ The perception is that the community has come alive. Truth be told, it has,” Calderone said. “The excitement today is all centered around Madison Street although there is certainly more to our village than Madison Street.”

Speaking of his administration’s efforts to bolster the town’s economy and the relationships between private and municipal bodies, Calderone said that strategic alliances are key to development.

“Early in my first administration, we made a very serious collaborative effort to strengthen our partnerships with our Main Street organization, which mostly focuses on our downtown business district, and our chamber of commerce,” he said. “Both of the organizations had existed for quite some time, the Chamber of Commerce much longer, but neither of them had the level of support necessary from government to help them in their initiatives.”

To correct this, Calderone said he engaged elected officials and dispatched them to serve in various capacities in both these organizations.

“The guiding principle behind this was very simple: Bring concerns to the highest level of government and cut red tape,” he said. “We discovered that investment by government was necessary to return opportunity.”

As part of these partnerships, Calderone said, Forest Park established a façade improvement grant program and an interior rehabilitation grant program, primarily focused in the downtown business district.

“That was the impetus in the whole new wave you see happening in Forest Park,” Calderone said. “We had conditions set forth in those agreements, for instance, with our façade grant program. You could not modernize the building. You could spruce it up, but you couldn’t bring it into the 20th century. We wanted to return all those properties back to its original architectural design.”

His administration then turned to other areas in need of improvements, such as the residential structures and the Roosevelt Road business corridor, he said.

“Each of those disciplines caused us to say we need to start developing some philosophies of what we are going to do today to enhance the village into the future and also retain those business that we have now,” he said.

To that end the village created the Director of Community Development position, Calderone said.

“We had a very bright gal come into that position,” he said. “Nancy [Hill]’s job was to be what I call the cheerleader for the community. I don’t intend that to be sexist; it is just the reality. I think every community needs to have a cheerleader.”

The Community Development director, Calderone said, is another element that was key to the community’s successful revitalization.

“Her job was to meet and interact with new potential businesses but also, more importantly, to go to our existing customer base, talk to them, find out if they had any plans for expansion and find out if they are thinking of moving,” he said.

Calderone cited the successful conversion of the former Forest Park Mall into the Forest Park Plaza as another example of a successful partnership between government and the private sector that bolstered reinvestment.

“Not too many years ago, this site, which is quite large, was desperately ailing under the ownership of a church organization [Living Word Christian Center], and I was successful after countless meetings in convincing the church to create a for-profit corporation in which it would own and develop that property,” he said. “We went to them and said, ‘If you keep this property off the tax rolls, it certainly is going to be detrimental to us’.”

As a result, just late last year the 60,000-square-foot Ultra Food grocery store opened there and is estimated to do about $40-45 million a year in business, he said.

Calderone also spoke of the town’s other business corridors and developments.

“Remembering build it and they will come, this has set the stage for the next business development district that will take place on Roosevelt Road in Forest Park,” he said. “We developed a residential de-conversion grant program to return those homes that were chopped up over time and converted into multi-dwelling units and created this grant program to return those dwelling units back to their original single-family design.”

This program, he said, has had such a chilling effect on these types of rentals that, along with the other rehabbing taking place, it has created renewed interest from Realtors serving the area.

“Our slogan ‘Big City Access and Small Town Charm’ is a driving force behind everything we do, and continue to do, as we mature socially and economically. Today we are on the heels of a nice project, consisting of 66 condos sitting on top of 17,000 square feet of retail space [Madison Commons], and soon ground will be broken on a 200-unit mixed condo and townhome project which will be developed at the very west end of our community,” he said.

“Interest in Forest Park is at an all-time high, property values have appreciated very nicely, and we continue to mature as we learn from our lessons past and forge forward to tomorrow’s future.”

In the last two years, he added, nearly $20 million in construction improvements have taken place in a town of 15,000 people, covering roughly 3 miles square.

Calderone also cited the new Proviso Township Math and Science Academy, opening at the corner of Roosevelt Road and First Avenue, as “yet another milestone in Forest Park’s history, as it will fill a much-needed gap in the public education opportunities that are available to the residents of Forest Park.”

As for the future, Calderone said he hopes to continue to attract new businesses, enhancing the job market in the village and continuing to maintain the “superior level of services that we provide to residents up to and including plowing all public sidewalks.”

He also said he hopes to see more intergovernmental agreements with Forest Park’s neighbors.

“At some time you are going to see our communities focus on development along Harlem Avenue and along Madison Street, west of Desplaines Avenue where Forest Park and River Forest are neighbors,” he said.

Joanne Trapani, Calderone’s Oak Park counterpart also spoke of her village’s prosperity, self-sufficiency and fiscal stability.

Trapani is at the end of her term as president of the Village of Oak Park and told the audience “as I return to the role of resident, I feel confident about the state of the village’s finances, its partnerships and its opportunities.”

For Trapani, the picture in Oak Park is one of change, revitalization and prosperity, as has not been seen in at least a decade.

“Our community is in the midst of an unprecedented era of prosperity,” she said. “Our economy is strong and getting stronger, our housing market”which is really what Oak Park is all about”is as strong as it has ever been. In fact our housing market is getting even stronger. Oak Park remains one of the region’s most desirable communities in which to live.”

Representing the Village of River Forest, Village Administrator Charles Biondo also spoke of his village’s prosperity and of the intergovernmental agreements that have allowed River Forest to grow and provide quality services to its residents at reduced costs.

“We are doing just fine,” Biondo said. “We are building 3-5 new homes per year. Numerous additions and renovations are going on that boggle my imagination; permit fees show positive growth each and every year.”

All moneys collected during the dinner benefited the League of Women Voters of Illinois Education Fund.