Steven Campbell, a Riverside resident whose property holdings in Brookfield made him an influential figure who commanded respect and admiration from other business owners and his tenants for his generosity while simultaneously irritating and exasperating local officials for battling them relentlessly over property issues large and small, died Feb. 27 at his Riverside home of natural causes. He was 71 years old.
Raised in LaGrange and a graduate of Lyons Township High School, Campbell by the 1980s had established a shop called Coachworks on Ogden Avenue, restoring high-end automobiles.
He would increasingly turn to buying commercial property along Brookfield’s main drag and by the end of his life owned parcels along both sides the village’s entire stretch of Ogden Avenue, including a substantial number of parcels west of Maple Avenue.
Campbell also purchased single-family homes that he rented and sometimes, like the one at the corner of Prairie and Washington avenues, used the front picture window to hang signs deriding various Brookfield officials over alleged violations of his rights as a property owner, perceived uneven application of the village’s zoning code or to express displeasure with village policies, such as Brookfield’s 1-percent municipal sales tax.
“He was a little too outspoken for some people,” said Campbell’s close friend Bill Brandt, a former Brookfield public works director who first met Campbell as a young laborer in the street department over an issue the village had with one of his properties.
Campbell saw himself as an economic development consultant, creating the Brookfield Economic Development Corporation and offering his services to those looking to start a business in the village or seek zoning relief from the village.
He also put his money where his mouth was. While Campbell concentrated his property acquisition on Ogden Avenue, he bought a pair of properties in downtown Brookfield in the early 2000s.
He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating the building at 3733 Grand Blvd., transforming it in 2003 into the Boulevard Blues Club, which sought to deliver both live music and fine dining to downtown Brookfield.
The venture lasted 11 months, closing in May 2004.
“We built it and they didn’t come,” said Clare Childs, who Campbell named as the club’s manager, at the time.
Campbell had met Childs through his business dealings on Ogden Avenue and the two became close friends. After the blues club closed, Childs continued to work as Campbell’s assistant until his death.
“A lot of people thought that he was a bull-headed hard ass, but he was my dearest friend and safety net for 20 years,” said Childs.
After the blues club closed, the property would continue to house a series of restaurants and bars. It is currently home to Pub 78.
Campbell embraced the economic development role, particularly for first-time entrepreneurs seeking to launch their dream businesses.
Loca Mocha, a coffee shop at the Brookfield Metra station which has become something of a local institution, got its start in 2003 inside a Campbell-owned storefront on Brookfield Avenue in the downtown.
“From the very beginning Steve took my sister Silvia and I under his wing, and treated us more like a big brother/great friend rather than just a landlord,” said Loca Mocha owner Maria Verduzco in a Facebook post on Monday. “He was a witness to many of our fears and our tears (that came quite often) at the beginning of our business endeavor, and being new to this world we had many bloopers along the way … but it was always Steve to the rescue!!”
Silvia Mancilla, who opened Loca Mocha 2 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, four years ago, called Campbell “the best landlord I ever had. Anything I need, in five minutes he always sends someone to fix the problem.”
In the 1990s, a 17-year-old Doc Mack approached Campbell after being referred to him by someone else. Mack was developing a video arcade game and needed a place to shoot video for it.
Campbell had no experience with video production or video games, and according to Mack, really didn’t understand what he was trying to accomplish.
“He was like, ‘Here are the keys to the building.’ He handed us a free building,” Mack said. “He was so instrumental in sending us in the right direction.”
That was the start of what would become the Galloping Ghost business empire that stretches along Ogden Avenue in six different Campbell-owned buildings that include everything from the flagship video arcade and its roughly 800 games to a pinball arcade, game production studio, print shop, fitness gym and car repair business.
“He’s been everything,” Mack said. “We would not be where we are without him.”
Campbell could be hard on him at times, Mack said, but those criticisms “came from a good spot.”
“He wanted me to succeed,” Mack said. “I don’t think anyone has any idea what kind of positive impact he had on the town and how he made things work from behind the scenes.”
According to Childs, Campbell cut tenants slack when they faced financial difficulties, allowing them to defer or simply forego paying rent to get through difficult times.
“He was prepared to stick up for the little guy no matter what,” Childs said.
While most of Campbell’s business dealings were centered on Brookfield, his generosity also extended to his hometown of Riverside.
He donated thousands of dollars to the village to plant trees on public parkways and donated thousands more in new equipment for the Riverside Police Department, including a drone, heavy duty rechargeable flashlights for every officer on the force and recording devices for detectives to take statements.
The latter donation was the result of an experience Campbell himself had with police, when he sought to put on record details of incidents connected to a bizarre and frightening chapter of his life.
In 2012, Campbell went to police after being contacted by the FBI, who informed him he was the intended victim of an as-yet unexplained crime. The FBI asked Campbell for the use of one of his cars, one of his straw hats and one of his ubiquitous Hawaiian shirts and told him to lay low.
A couple of days later, the FBI announced they had arrested two men who had intended to kidnap and torture a businessman and get him to turn over all of his property holdings and cash before killing him and disposing of his body.
An FBI agent wearing Campbell’s clothes and driving his car served as bait for the would-be kidnappers, who were arrested by federal agents outside a Chicago real estate office where they had planned to snatch Campbell.
Two years later in federal court, Campbell took the stand to recount how he’d been contacted as early as 2011 by the mastermind of the plot, a former Chicago cop named Steven Mandell.
Campbell never met the man, but Mandell had left a property inquiry note with his name and number inside the front door of Campbell’s Riverside home. When Campbell called him, Mandell gave Campbell a suspicious story about how he learned where Campbell lived. Campbell handed over Mandell’s note to Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel, who in turn gave it to the FBI as part of their investigation.
Mandell was found guilty of the plot – his accomplice died by suicide while in custody – and was sentenced to life in prison. He remains in custody at one of the nation’s most secure federal prisons in Colorado.
While Campbell would sometimes joke about the experience, it had a deep impact on him, said Childs.
“It affected him tremendously,” she said. “He wasn’t very open with a lot of people before. Afterward you could count on one hand the people he trusted. It was very hard on him to put it mildly.”
Campbell was preceded in death by his wife, Linda, in 2006. He is survived by his daughter, Carly Campbell.
Visitation will be held on Saturday, March 6 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Ivins/Moravecek Funeral Home, 80 E. Burlington St. in Riverside.