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Destination: Downers Grove

Burgeoning business and entertaining events create rich community

Published: Friday, March 28, 2014 11:07 a.m. CDT

Downers Grove has flourished since 1832 when Pierce Downer, joined by a handful of early settlers, founded the town.

Many historic remnants remain intact, reminders of the town’s rich history even as the current population has grown to an estimated 49,399 residents. 

“We try to maintain a balance between our history and our progression to the 21st century,” says Linda Kunze, executive director, Downtown Management Corporation (DMC).

Since the late 1990s her organization has served business and property owners to promote a strong central business district. Monies raised from a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) and Special Service Area taxes have funded infrastructure redevelopment, including new sidewalks, streetlights and a 791-space parking deck.

Kunze says a majority of downtown businesses are family-owned – a unique situation that fosters building a personal connection with customers. One payoff is high occupancy levels: 98 percent from 2009-2011; 94 percent in 2012; 93 percent last year, and now back up to the 98 percent level, she notes.

The DMC sponsors multiple events that engage public participation. Every February it runs an ice sculpture festival. In the spring, it organizes a Wedding Walk – this year it’s on April 6 – in which merchants bring together everything the prospective bride or groom might require, from dresses and invitations to photographers and jewelers.

The organization sponsors Summer Nights Classic Car Show every Friday night from May 16 to Aug. 29; Downtown Sidewalk Sale in July; and, on Sept. 6-7, the Downers Grove Fine Arts Festival, a juried event that typically draws 7,000 visitors. In addition, DMC and Indian Boundary YMCA co-sponsor the annual Downtown Downers Grove Market which features a mix of 70 vendors offering everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to children’s books, spices, jewelry and glass art. It will run Saturdays from May 10 to Oct. 18 from 7 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Kunze says the town’s diverse housing mix – from condos and apartments to new and old homes – serves to attract a younger demographic. Newcomers also find entertainment and recreation options, good schools, a well-regarded library and excellent healthcare facilities.

Historic Tivoli Theater, built in 1928, was the country’s second facility designed specifically for sound motion pictures. Owned by Classic Cinemas since 1976, Tivoli shows current movies and hosts live professional performances throughout the year.

The Downers Grove Public Library gets a lot of use. Average daily visitors are 2,000, and Director Rick Ashton says in 2013 the number of books, videos, CDs and periodicals checked out from its 300,000-item collection numbered just under one million – or almost 20 items for each resident in town. Starting in April, he says the facility will undergo a “substantial renovation” program involving interior repairs, upgrades and new furnishings.

Meanwhile, more than 150 restaurants of every stripe – seafood, steak, American, ethnic, vegetarian – stand ready to sate a broad spectrum of appetites. Chama Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse on Finley Road was identified in February as one of Yelp’s top 100 U.S. dining spots. Gatto’s Restaurant & Bar and Emmett’s Ale House are among perennial favorites as are Parkers’ Restaurant & Bar, Ballydoyle’s and Angelo’s Pizza.

Downers Grove’s strategic location appeals not only to visitors and residents, but it’s a magnet for business and industry, says Michael Cassa, president and CEO of Downers Grove Economic Development Corporation.

The town is served by three Metra stations at Belmont Road, Main Street and Fairview Avenue, and is in close proximity to major interstate highways, including I-55 and I-88. O’Hare International Airport and Midway are both within easy reach.

In addition, visitor needs are met by seven hotels, including two large full-service venues, Doubletree and Marriott that attract overnight stays and provide meeting space.

“Thanks to our diversified economy, we are one of the premier destinations for Class A office tenants. We have more than 4 million square feet of Class A office space here,” Cassa says. Among corporations with regional headquarters in Downers Grove are Advocate Health Care, Acxiom, DeVry University, FTD, Pepperidge Farm, HAVI Global Solutions, Invesco Power Shares, SAP, Dover Corporation and Microsoft.

Cassa also describes Ellsworth Business Park as “one of the largest industrial parks in the county” and cites the area’s extensive commercial sector, with retail shopping corridors from 75th Street on the south to Butterfield Road on the north in addition to the thriving downtown.

One popular downtown venue, Lemon Tree at 935 W. Burlington Ave., opened in 2010 and serves as a gourmet market, bar, caterer and sit-down bistro (Zest). It provides consumers with a fresh look at new products – not something seen at standard markets, says Michael Neumann, marketing director.

Earlier this year, the business acquired the coffee shop space at the Metra and renamed it Lemon Tree Grind. It serves java from Chicago-based Bow Truss Coffee Roasters.

In 2013, Forbes Magazine recognized Downers Grove as one of “America’s Friendliest Towns.” At the time, Mayor Martin T. Tully declared: “Many in the community agree that efforts to keep Downers Grove a great place to live, learn, work and play are important.” He added that this honor “demonstrates that those efforts not only are essential, but have been very successful.”

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