The unusual development of Rosemont, Illinois

Rosemont is a different kind of suburb and the Daily Herald sums up its unique growth over 60 years:

Before it was an entertainment and business mecca of the suburbs, Rosemont was an oft-flooded swampy area with pothole-ridden, unpaved roads, no streetlights and taverns that became hangouts for the mob…

Today, the 2.5-square-mile town on the edge of O’Hare International Airport has 4,200 residents — many of whom live in a close-knit gated community and are employed by the village. But what drives Rosemont’s economy is its estimated 100,000 visitors a day, drawn to the town’s 14 hotels, a shopping mall, offices and village-owned venues including a stadium, theater, convention center and entertainment district…

Almost from the beginning, Rosemont linked itself to O’Hare, which was on its way to becoming the world’s busiest airport. As other suburban towns fought airplane noise and expansion plans, Stephens was feeding off it…

In 1958, Stephens brokered a deal with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley for access to Chicago water in exchange for a 162-foot-wide strip of Foster Avenue that would allow the city to connect to O’Hare. Rosemont got the right to 4 million gallons of water per day at Chicago rates.

Three features strike me as consequential in this story: (1) geographic proximity to O’Hare Airport; (2) a unique vision from the Stephens family who has largely been able to guide the community; and (3) the success the suburb has had in attracting businesses and visitors. Many suburbs would like to have some of the features that Rosemont has today – particularly the regular visitors who bring tax dollars into the local coffers – yet all of those same features – a convention center, an arena, proximity to O’Hare, years of seeking out a casino – would not fit the character of many communities nor would they necessarily all come together.

In other words, a suburb like this is rare as not every suburban community can develop an entertainment base and have it pay off. (Unfortunately, this article doesn’t delve much into the suburb’s finances. How much debt is there? What is the local tax rate? What happens if one of these major centers or projects crashes?) The lesson to be learned here may be that this is a rare suburb in the Chicago region and it cannot be easily emulated.

Transforming Rosemont from a small suburb to a entertainment and commercial center

The suburb of Rosemont, Illinois has changed quite a bit in recent decades with a strong push from local leaders:

“Now Rosemont pretty much has everything people need,” Stephens said. “There is no need to go to downtown Chicago.”

That’s essentially been the philosophy of Rosemont since its incorporation in 1956. The village covers only 2.5 square miles. But it’s blessed with being at the center of a transportation hub. It’s in the shadows of O’Hare International Airport. It stands at the convergence of I-90 and I-294. And it has a stop on the CTA’s Blue Line el.

Donald Stephens’ ambition was to convince travelers to O’Hare that they didn’t need to go to Chicago. So he built hotels and restaurants, the Donald A. Stephens Convention Center, Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena), Rosemont Theatre, Rosemont Stadium for softball, Muvico 18, a movie multiplex, and MB Financial Park, a de-facto town square filled with restaurants and entertainment venues, including a bowling alley and ice skating rink…

Beyond a great location, Rosemont made the decision early on that it wanted to attract commercial development, said Steve Hovany, president of Strategy Planning Association, a Schaumburg-based real estate consulting firm.

This sounds like a classic case of the political economy model for urban growth. One key family, now spanning two separate mayors, made decisions alongside business and local leaders to pursue economic growth. They made use of an existing advantage in the community, being located near transportation options, and attracted new opportunities. The only piece missing from the article is some explanation from the leaders themselves why they did all of this. Just to put Rosemont on the map? Or, to make money for leaders as well as the community who then benefits quite a bit from property and sales taxes (items many suburbs wish they had).