When mayor Steve Chirico first took the oath of office in 2015, little did he know of the trials and tribulations that would test his leadership in unthinkable ways, from devastating tornados to social unrest to a global pandemic.
“I’m really, really glad i was mayor when this happened so that, you know, I felt like my calmness and, you know, that just being able to deal with that with my personality and not overreact and be able to just make decisions that were, I think, you know, based on, you know, good data and good information, i think was really good for our city.”
Pushing Through the Pandemic
From vibrant to silent, city streets across the country – including our own – emptied during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses had to shut their doors and mayors nationwide were forced to make the difficult decision to cut staff and city services. As for Mayor Chirico, he took a different approach.
“I believe that this is what reserves are for,” said Chirico. “Our residents and our city and our businesses are going to need our services more now than they did before the pandemic. And so by keeping our staff employed and providing those services, when we came out the other side, we didn’t miss a beat. You know, our city was in good infrastructure condition.”
Calls for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Naperville
In the thick of a pandemic, also came social unrest. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of police sparked outrage. As protestors took to Naperville’s streets, tensions escalated.
“Making the decision to personally get out there and face it and get involved was controversial,” Chirico said. “I know a lot of people don’t like the fact that I addressed our high school kids and took a knee with them. These kids just wanted something we all want. They want a better society.”
Taking a step towards a better society for all, the mayor and his staff have since hired a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – or DEI – manager, Dr. Geneace Williams.
Mayor Chirico says when it comes to exactly what DEI means, he’s learned a lot.
“One of things I learned in the whole conversation of DEI, a lot of times people want to use government to enforce their beliefs on others, right? And as long as you have their belief, they consider that to be inclusive. Really to be inclusive, you have to be willing to listen to other views that you disagree with,” he said. “As mayor, I disagree with a lot of what my colleagues on council believe, certainly what our residents believe. But you do have to give them a seat at the table and include them and include their views.”
As if a pandemic and social unrest weren’t enough, to top it off, a tornado destroyed the Cinnamon Creek neighborhood. The National Weather Service categorized it as an EF3, with winds reaching 140 mph. Many homes were left uninhabitable for awhile with major roof and structural damage. Some homeowners are still left displaced more than a year and a half later.
“I was out there the morning of the tornado and people who were witnessing what they saw, it was pretty chaotic. It was like being in an emergency room after a major accident happened. And, you know, a lot of people were in the emergency room and doctors and nurses and aides and everybody, they were running around like crazy. But they all knew what they’re doing. They’re all doing their job and they’re all just, you know, just is just sticking to their playbook.”
Chirico Focuses on Economic Development and Reducing City Debt
Throughout all these challenges, Chirico stuck to his original playbook as mayor, which was getting the city in better financial shape.
“We were taking on a lot of debt. We were spending all our cash reserves and we were deferring maintenance,” he said. “Our goal was to reduce our debt by 25%. We have it at 37%. That saves us like three and a half to $4 million a year in interest. So that money now can be used for services.”
While decreasing debt, the mayor wanted to increase city revenue, and to do that he says he and his team remained laser focused on economic development.
“Our biggest challenge was all the big boxes and big office buildings that were empty. And so we had a goal. We listed all the properties that we needed to find a way to, you know, to be creative, think outside the box and and get them leased.”
From a vacant Menard’s, KMart, and Dominick’s, to what’s now Patel Brothers grocery store, Costco, and Amazon Fresh, nearly a dozen empty commercial properties were all filled during Chirico’s tenure.
“This is the way you can achieve all these financial goals, continue to make sure that our schools are properly funded going forward and do this all without raising property taxes.”
Pride and Hope
In a mayorship marked by one defining moment after another, Steve Chirico looks back with great pride and forward with great hope.
“I think I’m leaving [the city] in a better place than when I took it over. And that is something to be proud of,” he said. “We’ve been acknowledged throughout our country for a lot of things, a lot of good things that are very ambitious to have. I’m really proud of those things, and I want to keep on that trajectory. I want to continue to be that city that is looked at as the type of city that others want to be like.”