By Joe Boyle
The mayors of Hickory Hills and Palos Hills are encouraged this year by projects taking place in their communities, but added that a return to normalcy is not likely in the early stages of 2021.
Mike Howley, the mayor of Palos Hills, and Gerald Bennett, the mayor of Palos Hills, addressed members of the Hills Chamber of Commerce during a "State of the Cities" Zoom session on Sept. 30.
Both mayors agreed that despite the presence of the pandemic, development still took place in their neighboring cities. But Teresa Stack, the secretary for the chamber, asked the two mayors if they thought that businesses would reopen by next spring.
"I'm thinking about our Expo, which is really important for our businesses," Stack said.
Bennett responded that it is up to residents and businesses to help make that happen.
"If people at this stage would just follow the guidelines then I think it will make a difference," Bennett said. "But until a vaccine comes along, I personally think it will be June, I hope, before we come out of this."
Howley agreed with that assessment.
"I don't know how you can rule it out at this point, but it might have to be pushed back," Howley said about plans for the annual chamber business expo.
Bennett said when the spread of COVID-19 across the country that led to the shutdown of businesses, schools and organizations last March, it was important for local communities to share information to see what could be done to provide services.
"We came out of this in May and we have done our best to support local businesses," Bennett said. "Our small restaurants did OK. We opened up City Hall in July. The challenge is to keep costs down."
Bennett said he was encouraged by the fact that Cook County, through the federal government, will provide much needed revenue for the city through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Palos Hills is going to receive the requested full allotment of $456,000.
"That will help us go a long way," Bennett said. "This will help with our operational costs. We have faith that everything will come back."
Howley added that "to say the least, it has been a crazy year." He thanked the Hills Chamber of Commerce for their efforts in keeping in contact with businesses and local organizations. He pointed to the chamber's "Hills Strong" campaign to provide support for local businesses.
"Our towns have been doing incredible things for the community," Howley said. "Like Elsie's Food Pantry in Palos Hills that works out of Savior Divine Lutheran Church. They have wonderful volunteers who help people in need."
Howley also pointed to District 230 and District 117 who he said have done great jobs in providing a hybrid form of education during the pandemic.
"I know it is touch and go every week, but I appreciate how they have taken on the challenge," Howley said.
Bennett said that, unfortunately, he has to replace veteran Police Chief Paul Madigan, who plans to retire at the end of the month. Bennett said that Madigan joined the force 51 years ago as a part-time officer and has been his police chief for 29 years. He is interviewing two deputy chiefs who have worked under Madigan and who both have over 20 years of experience.
"He (Madigan) has done a great job," Bennett said. "He has modernized and professionalized our department. We are very proud of our Palos Hills Police Department."
In regards to development, Bennett pointed to the new public works building located in Bennett Park at 108th and Roberts Road. The mayor said he hopes to have a special ceremony next spring for the facility. A celebration could not be held this year due to COVID-19.
The renovated Bennett Park, formerly Pleasure Lake and renamed in honor of the mayor, will have a variety of new amenities that include a stone amphitheater for children, outside exercise pods, a Pavilion area, waterfalls, and a bridge that leads up to the lake.
The 40,000-square foot public works building just received a landscape upgrade. A large public parking lot will be adjacent to the public works facility for people who want to visit the park. A modern play area through a $100,00 grant will be available for kids and for children with special needs. A sledding hill is also going to be added at the park.
"Public Works has done an incredible job," Bennett said. "They did all the work outside of the building and saved the city thousands of dollars."
The Southwest Dispatch Center is currently under construction along 95th Street across the street from old Sabre Room site. The state-of-the art building should be completed by next June, Bennett said.
A Thorntons gas station is being built at the corner of 111th and Roberts Road over what was once three vacant lots, Bennett said. The project should be completed by December. A right turn lane going westbound on 111th Street is to improve traffic flow and will be included. Landscaping will take place at all four corners at the intersection of 111th and Roberts Road and will include a decorative wall placement and plantings. The project is now scheduled for 2022.
Howley also pointed to parade drive-by celebrations for kids marking birthdays and graduations. The events were often organized by the city's police department.
The digital billboard has been a great addition at the corner of 87th Street and 88th Avenue, Howley said. He did, however, add that old Sabre Room site project has stalled.
"Unfortunately, I have the same report over the last two years about the Sabre Room site," Howley said. "They just have not been able to find an interested development for the property. So, that is why the property continues to look undeveloped. We are going to keep our fingers crossed that the right developer will come along."
Construction is currently taking place for the Ricky Rockets Fuel Center at 7717 W. 95th St., on the site that was once the Lexington House and the Drive Time Building.
Howley said the project will include a huge min-mart and a car wash. Because they have the space, this facility will include a retail center that will be located just east of the 95th Street Produce Mart.
"We are very, very hopeful that we are going to get several desirable businesses to go in there," Howley said.
The Ricky Rockets Fuel Center should be completed by next spring, Howley said.
Despite the pandemic, both mayors remain optimistic about the future.
"It has been a crazy year — both good and bad," Bennett said. "And all of us hope that we can get out of this sooner than later."