If you could sum up the Landmark area in one word in 2019, it would probably be “change.”
While some of those changes were spurred by outside forces – like the Illinois General Assembly – others were the result of local voters and governments taking it upon themselves to act.
Here are some of the biggest stories of the past year:
Here comes cannabis
It wasn’t that long ago that being caught with a few grams of cannabis would get you a criminal record.
Starting today, as long as you’re 21 years old, you can walk into a store and buy it – in multiple forms, without a note from your doctor — take it home and enjoy it to your heart’s content.
Illinois has been on the path to legalized recreational use of cannabis for some time, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker made it official on June 25 when he signed the bill passed a month earlier by the General Assembly.
And while other suburban communities struggled with the impending reality of legal weed, outlawing its local sale, Brookfield and Riverside are welcoming the possibility.
Riverside, in particular, jumped on the bandwagon, making dispensaries a permitted use along the Harlem Avenue corridor. Brookfield followed suit late in the year, allowing dispensaries and other cannabis-related businesses as special uses in its commercial and industrial districts.
As of the start of the New Year, the village of North Riverside hadn’t yet nailed down amendments to its zoning code, regulating where such businesses can locate and under what conditions.
But, the village’s leadership last year indicated it was all for such businesses – and the sales tax revenue along with them — coming to town.
Whether any of the three villages will end up with a dispensary is still unknown, but the villages have signaled they’re open for business.
Hello, Holy Guardian Angels
By the end of 2018, the parishioners of St. Barbara Church in Brookfield and St. Louise de Marillac in LaGrange Park knew what was going to happen. That October, the archdiocese announced that the two parishes would merge into a single entity with St. Louise School serving the new parish, but apart from that decree things remained murky.
As 2019 progressed, things got clearer. Rev. Denis Condon, formerly the pastor of St. Louise was named pastor of the combined parish. And on July 1, he hopped in his car and made the commute from his home in LaGrange Park to the combined parish’s office in the St. Barbara rectory.
On Oct. 21, the new parish adopted its new name, Holy Guardian Angels, a name decreed by Cardinal Blase Cupich after parishioners, who had submitted several choices, voted for it by an overwhelming majority.
The two church buildings, designated as “worship sites,” retain their old names, the new, unified parish itself forges ahead.
After 5+ years, a contract
When trustees vote to ratify a new contract with its union firefighters on Jan. 6, it will mark the first time since April 30, 2014 that there’s been an official deal in place.
In December, Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. announced that the two sides had agreed to a seven-year contract – good through the end of April 2021, ending an acrimonious, expensive chapter in the village’s history.
In 2014, the administration sought to privatize the village’s firefighting services and filed suit that fall to have a judge agree that it could unilaterally void the most recent contract and terminate the union firefighters.
But, the strategy failed to produce that outcome and in 2019 the administration sought to avoid arbitration and went back to the bargaining table. The new deal isn’t groundbreaking, but it allows both sides to take a breath before going back to hammer out what could be a more substantive deal early in 2021.
Getty retakes District 103 control
Voters turned back the clock in Lyons-Brookfield School District 103, delivering the future of education in Lyons, Stickney, McCook, Forest View and the southeast quarter of Brookfield to a school board controlled by Lyons Village President Christopher Getty.
After the April election of a slate of four candidates backed by Getty, whose political organizations and allies spent more than $20,000 during the campaign, the new school president, Jorge Torres, began holding up key hires that new Superintendent Kristopher Rivera proposed, forcing Rivera to rescind verbal job offers and delaying the superintendent’s ability to build his administrative staff.
The failure to allow Rivera to hire a business manager resulted in the school district blowing the state’s deadline for passing a fiscal year budget. The document passed by the school board in October was cobbled together by plugging in year-old revenue assumptions and questionable health insurance figures.
After a summer’s worth of contentious school board meetings, Torres and his majority eliminated committee of the whole meetings as the school year began. While ratcheting down the sniping, the act also took away a monthly opportunity to hash out issues.
In the past month, the principal of George Washington Middle School announced he would be leaving at the end of the school year, ensuring that the District 103 administrative merry-go-round will continue spinning into next year.
One of 2019’s most unlikely stories was Sears surviving the decade. The storied retailer, in a tailspin throughout the 2010s, continues to hang by a thread as it sells off its last remaining assets – the most recent being Die Hard car batteries, sold to Advance Auto Parts for $200 million cash in the waning days of last year.
It appeared certain that Sears would disappear when it was saved from oblivion by its chairman, Eddie Lampert, who paid $5.2 billion for the company, which at the time operated about 425 Sears and Kmart stores and employed about 45,000 people.
The road has been rough since then. After announcing in November that it would close another 96 stores nationwide, Sears/Kmart will be down to less than 200 locations including one in North Riverside, whose size was halved in 2017.
Will Sears be around next Christmas shopping season? It sure looks questionable. They’re not the only ones. Payless Shoes and Forever 21 joined the parade of retailers seeking bankruptcy protection last year. With more sure to come in 2020.
Meanwhile, North Riverside is grappling with a future where retail sales won’t be the financial lifeline of the past and has embarked on its first-ever strategic planning process. Can the village adapt? Check back in 2030 to find out.
New library looms
By this time next year, you’ll be checking out books and attending programs at the Linda Sokol Francis Brookfield Library.
Unless there is some sort of intervention, ground will break for the new building at 3541 Park Ave. in a few months, starting a new chapter in the history of the local institution, which got its modest start in 1913 as a project of the Brookfield Women’s Club.
This latest iteration – the wholesale movement of the building from its longtime home at 3609 Grand Blvd. – really began in 2007, when the library board began trying to identify a suitable location for a larger building.
After running into a brick wall in the Hollywood section of the village, the library was able to acquire the property that formerly housed Brookfield United Methodist Church, coincidentally the church where Linda Sokol Francis had been a prominent member and whose $1 million gift in 2018 clinched the deal for the construction of the new building.
Shifting gears after voters turned down a building bond referendum in 2016, the library board hired a new architect, saved money and won approval for a new 21,000-square-foot building that will be better able to accommodate what remains a vibrant, vital part of Brookfield.
District 96’s Hollywood dreams
Small local school districts aren’t necessarily known for bold power plays, but Riverside School District 96 came through with one in 2019.
After a property buying spree the past couple years that allowed the central administration to move to a building on Harlem Avenue and will allow for a large addition to be built this summer onto Ames School, the school board turned its attention to Hollywood.
In June, the school board made an unsolicited offer to buy the Hollywood Community Association’s property at the corner of Washington and Hollywood avenues in Brookfield for $340,000.
Such a deal would have allowed the school district to demolish Hollywood House, expand Hollywood School and allow for the separation of play and parking spaces at the landlocked school.
The HCA balked at the offer and responded with a 30-year lease deal offering land north and west of the Hollywood House to expand play areas – but not parking. The two sides continue to kick around a possible deal while seeking a parking solution elsewhere.
New blood in Brookfield
Just when Brookfield thought it had its top administrative staff all ironed out, news late in 2019 brought tidings of two more departures. Fire Chief Mark Duffek and HR Director Michelle Robbins announced their retirements in late November, but otherwise things seem to be settling down inside village hall.
While 2018 saw village hall in total flux, with a parade of retirements, resignations and terminations that led to months of interim solutions in key spots, permanent pieces started falling into place this year.
In February, Village Manager Timothy Wiberg announced a new planner and new public works director. By spring, he’d named a new police chief and assistant manager and parted ways with the village’s building department chief, setting up the hire of a seasoned community development director in October.
With the departures of Duffek and Robbins, Wiberg in the span of a little more than a year will have overhauled, almost entirely, Brookfield’s central administration.
After spending the previous school year in active construction sites, students at Brook Park School in LaGrange Park and S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield walked into completely transformed surroundings in September.
A gleaming new K-2 wing, gymnasium and playground greeted elementary students at Brook Park while a huge new gym and new cafeteria, music and art spaces and a cutting-edge STEM lab debuted at S.E. Gross.
The changes came courtesy of Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 voters, who in 2017 approved a $20 million bond issue. After a smaller-scale project about a decade earlier, district officials went all-out to bring learning into the 21st century.
No breaks in case of missing woman
The last time anyone saw 53-year-old Brookfield resident Erica Thompson was on surveillance camera video on Sept. 25, 2019, making a transaction at First National Bank of Brookfield.
While police, aided by experts from the FBI, were able to track the movement of Thompson’s cellphone into the early morning hours of the following day, she hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Her dark purple Nissan Juke has also not been seen since.
In the three full months since Thompson’s disappearance, police have been trying to identify places she might have gone. Based on cellphone data, police spent two days in November searching waterways that cut through the area south of Brookfield, including the CalSag Channel. Cellular data indicated that Thompson’s phone traveled through Countryside, Hodgkins, McCook, Forest View, Summit and Bridgeview early on Sept. 26.
In addition, Clear Channel Outdoor has been running “missing” bulletins featuring Thomson’s face and the number for police on digital billboards throughout the Chicago area.
Late in November, Cook County Crime Stoppers stepped in to offer a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading investigators to Thompson.
“I feel at this point, we have to find her one way or another,” said Thompson’s sister, Dana Kujawski, at that time. “It’s like a nightmare.”
Brookfield Police Chief Edward Petrak said last week that the case is still being actively investigated, but there have been no breakthroughs so far.