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Oak Lawn, Chicago Ridge will continue to share fire chief

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge have shared a fire chief since 2014, and by mutual agreement between the neighboring villages, Chief George Sheets will continue wearing two hats for at least four more years.

The Oak Lawn Village Board passed the new intergovernmental agreement to continue the arrangement last week without much comment, and the Chicago Ridge Village Board followed suit at its meeting on Tuesday.

“I don’t see any reason to change the agreement. It has been working out well for everyone,” said Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar before the board approved it unanimously.

Oak Lawn, being the larger community, covers two-thirds of Sheets’ salary, in addition to benefits, and Chicago Ridge is responsible for one-third. The exact salary agreement was not available this week, but Tokar said it costs the village about $50,000 annually. Sheets, who lives in Oak Lawn, said the agreement calls for the Chicago Ridge portion of the salary to increase by 5 percent each year.

The relationship between management and members of the firefighters union in Oak Lawn has been difficult at times in recent years, primarily due to staffing and other issues that have led to lawsuits. But everyone in Chicago Ridge seems to agree that having Sheets on board has worked out very well.

Prior to the vote on Tuesday, Chicago Ridge Fire Lt. Chris Schmelzer, president of the Chicago Ridge Firefighters Union Local 3098, sent Tokar a glowing recommendation letter regarding Sheets’ value to the department, and asked him to share it with the trustees.

Schmelzer cited several accomplishments that have been achieved under Sheets’ leadership in Chicago Ridge, including the introduction of a part-time firefighter program in which part-time and full-time staff work together. This has also allowed for the opening of the Lombard Avenue fire station. That station initially opened part-time, but was expanded to full-time this year, providing ambulance service to the main residential section of the village.

Schmelzer also acknowledged in the letter that union members did not initially welcome Sheets.

“To say he wasn’t welcomed with open arms would be an understatement of the grandest kind,” said the union president. “I don’t have a problem admitting when I made a mistake, and this was one of them,” he added.

“As an officer of the department I can say that he gives the managerial staff the latitude to perform their duties without undue interference. Micromanagement does not seem to be in his vocabulary,” Schmelzer said. “He has dealt with adversity better than anyone,” said Schmelzer, adding that Sheets’ style of leadership has resulted in all grievances being settled “in house” without involving committees or the Village Board.

In his letter to the mayor, Schmelzer also said Sheets’ management style, and realignment of the chain of command, has improved the department mindset.

“In my 21 years with this department, morale has never been higher. We have gone from a stagnant, disgruntled group of employees that a lot of other departments looked down upon, to a proud, active team that is a model of success,” added Schmelzer.

“I'm having a fantastic time with the shared arrangement. Today, I realized that I've been in the profession for 36 years with 21 of those years as a career fire chief,” said Sheets on Tuesday.

Last year, there was talk that he might leave the Chicago Ridge role after seeing projects through to completion, including the part-time program and the opening of the Lombard Avenue station.

“At this time, I have no intentions of retirement. I enjoy what I’m doing and I am having fun doing it,” said Sheets, describing the shared arrangement as “fantastic.”

He splits his days between the two villages, and their close proximity allows him to travel between his offices quickly.

“What started out as an experiment in regionalism has proven to be extremely successful. Of course, I would not be as successful if not for the trust and confidence of Mayor Tokar, and the assistance of President Schmelzer and the buy-in from the membership.

Chris is certainly a master at negotiating, but equally as important, he is an exceptional leader in labor/management relations,” said Sheets.

Banquet hall tent OK'd after intense debate

  • Written by Sharon L. Filkins

A request for a six-week temporary tent during Ramadan for a local banquet hall created a stir at last Thursday’s Hickory Hills Council meeting.

Ald. Thomas McAvoy (3rd) approved a request for the tent for Aladdin’s Palace Banquet Hall, 8821 W. 87th St., near the end of what seemed as though was going to be a brief and inconsequential meeting.

McAvoy presented a six-page report outlining the request from the owners of the banquet hall, Layal ElSahfei and her sister, Kamar. He added that the request was supported by Mayor Mike Howley and Brian Fonte, his fellow 3rd Ward alderman.

He stated that the owner of the 87th Street Plaza where the facility is located is Alan ElSahfei, their uncle.

“He is a stellar businessman and is very cooperative with our city’s requirements about the plaza,” said McAvoy about the banquet hall that is in the 3rd Ward.

According to the written request, the ElSahfei family wants to erect a 30-by-30 foot tent in the parking lot to the east of the banquet hall. The tent would be used to accommodate seating for overflow attendees and those wishing to smoke at events held in connection with the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, which runs from May 26 through June 24. Layal ElSahfei, who was present at the meeting, explained that the tent would serve as an overflow area for their business, which normally seats about 250 people.

“All food would be served inside the restaurant but customers could carry their plates out to the tent. Smoking would also be allowed in the tent,” she said.

Mayor Mike Howley joined McAvoy in support of the request, stating that the tent would be a temporary addition.

“They have been good corporate citizens and since this a temporary situation, it will give the owners a chance to evaluate the process to see if it is workable for future events,” Howley said. “Even though I do not have a vote, I support this request.”

At that point, the council erupted with numerous questions for ElSahfei.

Ald. Scott Zimmerman (4th Ward) asked about the noise level.

“There are residents just across the way from that area,” Zimmerman said. “What are the hours planned for this? Is there going to be music?

Ald. Debbie Ferrero (2nd Ward) asked about the purpose of the tent.

“Are there going to be tables and chairs set up? Is this going to be considered an expansion of the banquet hall?

As ElSahfei attempted to answer the barrage of questions, McAvoy intervened with comments about his meeting with the owner of the plaza.

“The Aladdin facility has been a tenant in the 87th Street Plaza in the past four years without a single violation. It is family run and a well-respected business in the community.”

Tension in the room continued to escalate, prompting Building Commissioner Joe Moirano to speak up in defense of Layal ElSahfei.

“Before this goes any further, I want to state that I have worked with this young lady since the business has been opened and I have had nothing but cooperation from her,” Moirano said. “She complies with any requests from the city, she runs a very solid business, the establishment is exceptionally clean, meeting all health requirements and I think we should consider this request for a temporary tent at the facility. I agree with the mayor that it can be evaluated through the month they have requested to see if it is a viable decision.”

Howley then called for a vote. It was 7-1 in favor of allowing the tent to be used. Ald. John Szeszycki (1st Ward) cast the opposing vote.

A second agenda item also prompted a series of questions when Village Engineer Mike Spolar presented a request to award a contract in the amount of $88,524 to A.C. Paving Striping for the 2017 Micro-Surfacing Street Program. Ald. Brian Waight (1st Ward) said he would only approve it if the work included a second layer of paving on 94th Street.

Public Works Director Len Boettcher stated that putting down a second layer would result in a change to the bid amount. Szeszyck and McAvoy also questioned why the street could not receive a second layer of paving. Boettcher replied that it is a dead-end street and was not on the priority list.

The request was approved in a 6-2 vote with McHugh and Szeszycki voting nay.

In other business, four newly elected aldermen were installed with City Clerk D’Lorah Catizone administering the oaths of office. Returning to office were Waight, Fonte and Joseph Stachnik (4th Ward).

On another matter, the council heard a presentation from Bryan Farr, executive director of The Historic US Route 20 Association Inc.

Farr had spent the day traveling through Hickory Hills on US Route 20, which is also 95th Street, with McAvoy. They visited various restaurants and sights along the way in the city.

“Our purpose is to encourage travel and tourism along America’s longest highway, which spans the continent through 12 states from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. It is 3,365 miles of highway, from Boston to Oregon,” he said.

He added that unlike Route 66, Historic US Route 20 is drivable from coast to coast and follows much of its original 1926 alignment through small town America. Many malls shops, diners, historical sites and museums await exploration, Farr said.

Farr said there is a preconception that this particular portion of Route 20 through Hickory Hills is crowded and congested.

“I wanted to visit it myself to encourage people to drive it rather than by passing it on the expressways. I found it to be a very friendly community. Today, we visited a number of interesting neighborhood restaurants that were great as well as some other historical places. It was truly enjoyable.”

He said the Historical Association provides large signs 24-by-36 inches than can be displayed along the route in the various cities at a cost of $100.

Howley thanked Farr for his presentation and information and thanked McAvoy for hosting the tour.

Neat Repeats volunteer saying goodbye to 'family'

  • Written by Joe Boyle

chris and cake photo 5-18

 

Photo by Joe Boyle

Chris Doran cuts a piece of cake during her retirement party held May 11 at Neat Repeats Resale in Worth. Doran retired after serving 29 years as a volunteer for Neat Repeats.

 

It all started when Chris Doran wanted to take a few courses at Moraine Valley Community College.

“It was suggested as part of my class to do a paper by volunteering at the Crisis Center,” recalls Doran. “I don’t know if I could do that. But then it was mentioned that they have a retail store. I thought that would be a great idea.

“And I have been here ever since,” she added.

That was the beginning of her 29 years as a volunteer for the Neat Repeats Resale, which is now located at 7026 W. 111th St., Worth. Doran reminisced about the early days on May 11 during a retirement party held in her honor at the shop.

Funds raised from Neat Repeats Resale benefits the Crisis Center for South Suburbia, a non-profit community organization that provides emergency shelter and other services for individuals and families victimized by domestic violence. The Crisis Center has helped hundreds of women build a better life for themselves and their children. Neat Repeats also has another location in Orland Park.

Doran said that she began working at the first Neat Repeats store in the fall of 1988 at a different location down the street in Worth. In those days, there were just three or four volunteers who assisted shoppers who wanted to purchase items or were dropping off clothing to be used for resale.

The first store was considerably smaller than the current location, Doran said. In the early days she might just have a couple shoppers come in the store. Today there are shoppers coming all day, while other people are dropping off items.

“We have not only benefited the Crisis Center, but we have benefited the community,” Doran said.

She mentioned that they had previously participated in job fairs at Moraine Valley. They would offer suggestions to people who would shop at Neat Repeats, many of whom were the victims of domestic abuse and were struggling financially.

“We would give them tips on how to dress conservatively for interviews,” Doran said. “And we would help them with the clothes they could wear. You don’t realize that often these people have been abused and often just don’t know how to go to an interview.”

Doran said that often the people who attended the job fairs would come back to Neat Repeats to inform her that they had a couple of interviews.

“We believed in them and supported them,” Doran said. “I appreciated what the shop did for the community. It really grew. The people who volunteer are truly amazing people.”

Doran grew up in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood and attended St. Sabina School. Her family later moved to Oak Lawn. Doran is a graduate of Queen of Peace High School. She and her husband, Jerry, have two children. The couple has lived in Oak Forest for 27 years.

“We now have 175 volunteers,” said Doreen Holford, who serves as the operations manager at the Neat Repeats Resale store in Worth. “Everything is based on the volunteers. Chris trained me. I could not be trained by a better person.”

Holford, who is a longtime Worth resident, said that Doran is a last of a breed of volunteers who have worked at Neat Repeats.

“Because of the economy and raising families, a lot of women have to work and don’t have time to volunteer,” Holford said. “We won’t have anyone anymore like Chris who will volunteer for 29 years. That’s why we have a lot of seniors as volunteers who are retired and have more time. We are community based. The stores keep going through the work of the volunteers. We have been blessed to have these seniors volunteer for us.”

Joyce Athey serves as the store director at the Neat Repeat shop in Worth. She also plans to retire in June after working as a volunteer for 21 years. She said that Doran was a dedicated volunteer.

“In the beginning, she would often work late and have her kids here with her,” Athey said. “She really cared for the people and would talk to them and share their concerns. It’s more than just the clothes, it’s the people.”

Doran also applauded the efforts of Joni Rusco, a former longtime volunteer who surprised her by attending the retirement party. Doran said she was one of the original managers and was one of the many volunteers that have worked at Neat Repeats over the years.

“You know a lot of the women who volunteer have lost husbands and we become like family,” Doran said. “We really care for each other. I go out to dinner with many of these people. We enjoy each other’s company.”

Current and former volunteers stopped by to visit Doran last Thursday. One longtime customer dropped by specifically to see Doran.

“We have come such a long way,” Doran said. “We are now a boutique. People love coming here and we see many of these customers all the time. They are appreciative of what we do here because retail is not doing that well since the economy went bad. This is a place they can come to where they feel comfortable, and the prices are affordable.”

Doran was asked what she is going to miss most about Neat Repeats.

“I’m going to just say the friendships I’ve developed,” Doran said. “I’ve been with some amazing volunteers. A lot of people stay because they say it’s very comfortable, a great group of people.”

Doran said she as fortunate to put in as many hours in the beginning because her husband owned a Popeye’s chicken franchise in which he put in a lot of hours. Her sons, Jerry, 31, now lives in New York, and Matt, 26, lives in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. She and her husband have decided to move to Chicago’s South Loop.

 “I guess it’s time for a new adventure,” Doran said. “I told everyone I’m going to miss it. They have been like family.”

‘Poppy Day’ highlights need to reach out to veterans

  • Written by Joe Boyle

Members and volunteers from the Marrs-Meyer American Legion Post 991 in Worth will be out in force next Thursday.

The volunteers will be found at main intersections and near retail stores throughout the village on May 25 collecting for current and past veterans. The gift for people who donate will be artificial flowers that represent poppies.

Bethanne Lode, secretary and treasurer for Marrs-Meyer American Legion Auxiliary, is the local Poppy Day chairman. She said the volunteers are dedicated and a great help on Poppy Day.

“I’m getting in the neighborhood of 50 to 55 volunteers,” said Lode. “We have some older seniors who are out there as long as six hours. We have some great volunteers.”

Lode said her preparation for Poppy Day begins in January with the bulk of the work occurring in the final two weeks. Lode said the auxiliary understands the sacrifice of the U.S. Armed Forces in their effort to preserve freedom and to honor past and current service members. The members will wear a red memorial poppy as a sign of their appreciation on Memorial Day weekend.

The 900,000 members of the American Legion Auxiliary, the world’s largest patriotic service organization of women, are asking every American citizen to wear a poppy on the observance of Memorial Day, Monday, May 29, in addition to the entire preceding weekend.

“Wear it in honor of the millions of Americans who have willingly served our nation, all too many of whom have made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Lode. “This entire Memorial Day weekend will pay an honored tribute to all veterans, especially those who are currently serving in the war on terror.”

The poppy also honors the hospitalized and disabled veterans who hand assemble the small red flowers as a rehabilitation project each year.  The poppy continues to provide a financial and therapeutic benefit to those veterans who construct them, as well as benefiting thousands of other veterans and their families by the revenues collected from poppy distributions, Lode said.

In the battlefields of France during World War I, poppies grew wild amid the ravages of war. The overturned soils of battle enabled the poppy seeds to be covered, allowing them to flourish and forever serve as a reminder of the bloodshed of war.

The field poppy is an annual plant which flowers each year between about May and August. The seeds are disseminated on the wind and can lie dormant in the ground for a long time. If the ground is disturbed from the early spring the seeds will germinate and the poppy flowers will grow.

This is what happened in parts of the front lines in Belgium and France. Once the ground was disturbed by the fighting, the poppy seeds lying in the ground began to germinate and grow during the warm weather in the spring and summer months of 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918.

Lode, 53, who grew up in Worth, said she has assisted the auxiliary on Poppy Day for 33 years. She also plays a major role for the auxiliary by helping to organize clothing and food drives for the poor during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“I helped my mother, who did this for 25 years,” Lode said. “I would help back bags and boxes. Most of my family would help out.”

Poppy Day was inspired by the observations of a Canadian solider named John McCrae, who noticed the vibrant red flowers growing in Belgium and France in the midst of World War I. He composed a poem, “In Flanders Field” after the death of a friend about the phenomenon of the poppies growing in war-torn areas.

Today, Lode receives ample support from nieces and nephews. She said the money raised on Poppy Day is vital to assist current and past veterans.

“This is the flagship fundraiser for our veterans,” said Lode. “Without this huge fundraiser it would be difficult to provide for the veterans.

Lode said funds purchased from Poppy Days can help provide medical equipment and clothing for the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago, the Edward Hines VA Hospital and the Illinois Veterans Home in Manteno. Funding is also provided for the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, Lode said.

She reminded residents to wear their poppies on Friday, May 26 on National Poppy Day to highlight the sacrifice of U.S. veterans of our past and today.

“We raised just under $14,000 last year and that was a big boost,” Lode said. “When we raise that amount of money, we can buy the veterans clothes, candy and toiletries. This a great help to the veterans.”

Carson's thrives, Plaza project progresses

  • Written by Joe Boyle

plaza construction photo 5-11

Photo by Joe Boyle

Retail stores are being built alongside the new Carson’s beginning at 9700 S. Western Ave. for the new Evergreen Plaza. The stores, many of which will open this summer, will include DSW, Petco, TJ Maxx and Dick’s Sporting Goods Store.

 

The new Carson’s, the anchor for the development of the new Evergreen Park Plaza, has exceeded expectations while plans for additional retail shops and restaurants are on schedule, according to Mayor James Sexton.

“They are rocking,” Sexton said about the new Carson’s at 9700 S. Western Ave. “Business is doing very well there. I have heard they are very happy.”

Specific figures on sales were not available, but staff at Carson’s said that business has been doing well despite ongoing construction along the old Plaza site. The old Carson’s building, which was located across the parking lot from the new facility, has been torn down. The only remnant of the old structure, the last symbol of the old Plaza, was a portion of a wall that was visible as of last Thursday.

The Evergreen Park Village Board approved special-use permits during their most recent meeting for outdoor seating at three restaurants. The outdoor seating was approved for Potbelly Sandwich Restaurant, Raising Cane’s and Mod Pizza.

The demolition of the old Carson’s was expected to occur this spring. It did not receive the fanfare of the first phase of the demolition when the old Montgomery Ward’s building was leveled. Sexton is pleased because this means that soon the parking lot will be expanded and cleaned up to make way for the new retail stores that are being built alongside Carson’s.

Additional retail stores that will be joining Carson’s will be DSW, Petco, Five Below, TJ Maxx, Ulta, Rally House, 365, Carter’s Oshkosh, Dress Barn and Dick’s Sporting Goods. The stores will extend as far west as Campbell Avenue.

The old Carson’s was the last store that was still operating that goes back to the early days of the old Evergreen Plaza. The store actually remained open until last September, when the new Carson’s held its grand opening.

Along with Cane’s, Potbelly and Mod, Rusty Taco will also be built along Western Avenue. Naf Naf Grill will eventually open between Potbelly and Mod. Outdoor seating is also scheduled to be available at Naf Naf Grill. Applebee’s will continue to operate from an outlet lot nearest 95th Street. Applebee’s had already been in operation for a number of years while the old Plaza was still open.

“It’s all going along to the timetable,” said Sexton. “A lot of these stores could be up in June and July.”

Sexton is also optimistic about the prospects for the old Evergreen Plaza Office Tower at 9730 S. Western Ave. Anthony Ruh, of RSA Properties in Merrionette Park, provided a few options for the Evergreen Park Village Board last fall. His one suggestion is to level the existing garage and have a ground level lot aligned and integrated with the new Evergreen Plaza parking lot. The space could provide locations for one or two retail lots, according to Ruh.

A second alternative would be to build a new multi-level parking garage and incorporate one additional retail development along the street at the sidewalk level. Ruh said this would create attractive sight lines and landscaping. Ruh would need the cooperation of the village to implement this plan.

The final option would be a simple renovation of the existing garage and building in accordance with current building codes for rehabilitation projects. Ruh, who has been in the construction business for 25 years, added that this would include some exterior improvements and alterations. Ruh added that this was not his preferred option.

Sexton admits that he likes Ruh’s ideas and there is room for discussion. The opportunity to provide more parking and to make improvements on the old tower would be a plus, the Evergreen Park mayor said.

“He has a lot of good ideas,” Sexton said. “This guy has a nice plan. He did buy (the office tower) out of foreclosure and he wants to make improvements. Some new parking space would be great.”