Birth of a Boomburb

November 2018 View more

The trio currently at the helm of Naperville’s economy explains seven factors that have spawned the largest statewide economy outside Chicago

The term “boomburb” was coined in a 2001 book citing Naperville as a prime example of a rapidly growing suburb, but the city’s success goes well beyond simple population growth.

“We actually like the word ‘boomville,’ like Naperville,” says Christine Jeffries, president of the Naperville Development Partnership and Naperville Convention & Visitors Bureau. Incorporated in 1995, the NDP’s goal is to help retain and expand the city’s 5,343 existing businesses.

She has formed a symbiotic trio with Nicki Anderson, president and CEO of the Naperville Chamber of Commerce, and Katie Wood, president of the Downtown Naperville Association, which handles marketing and advocacy for the downtown district. “A lot of it is how well we collaborate with each other,” Wood says. Anderson adds, “Christine … brings in businesses. My job is to retain them. And Katie’s job is to keep a robust downtown area. … We really all support each other.”

A long history of civic and business collaboration has recently culminated into perhaps the largest feather in the city’s cap to date: the $3.8 billion spent in 2017 gross retail sales, including $405 million spent on dining and drinking—a figure that is, for the first time, ahead of suburban peers Schaumburg ($396 million) and Rosemont ($248 million).

The genesis of this prosperity honors both progression and tradition. In the wake of Naperville’s steady growth, Anderson, Jeffries, and Wood discuss Naperville’s split persona—charming small-town character coupled with big-city development—and seven reasons the city’s economy has continued to boom.

1. Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88)

The pioneering companies that settled in Naperville in the 1960s made a major impact on Naperville’s future growth. “When people ask me where the corporate corridor came from, it absolutely goes back to … the East-West Tollway, I-88,” Jeffries says. “There were two big corporate locations that came in, and that would be Bell Labs at the corner of Naperville Road and I-88 and BP Amoco,” Jeffries says.

Today, Calamos, Nicor, Nokia, and Tellabs are just a few of the major corporations with facilities in Naperville. Excellent services—school, park, fire, and police districts—form what Wood calls “spokes in the wheel” that draw companies to Naperville. “Businesses want to hire the best and the brightest, and they can attract the best and the brightest if they have a school district where they want to put their children,” Jeffries says.

2. Downtown Design

When compared with other historic suburban downtowns, Naperville lacks one thing that most have: a Metra station in the middle.

“I would say that it really goes back to our forefathers and the vision that they had not to put the railroad in the heart of downtown Naperville,” Anderson says. “I think that’s really the start of what allowed us to continue to grow and grow and grow.” Wood agrees: “I know that might sound like a nutty thing [not to want a Metra station downtown], but we don’t have a train bisecting our business district. … [It’s] walkable, pedestrian-friendly—certainly there are a lot of cars, but we’re not waiting for a train on either side of the tracks.”

The city’s decision to construct the Naperville Riverwalk in 1981, as a permanent commemoration to honor the city’s 150th anniversary, was also a game changer. “The planning of the Riverwalk? That was genius,” Wood says. “That brought such a beautiful amenity to Naperville.”

3. Bolstering Business

“What makes it so booming is the City of Naperville has always had a very probusiness attitude,” Jeffries says. “And by that, I mean that when a lot of towns and cities were running around saying, ‘Let’s do this incentive or that incentive,’ the City Council was really straightforward in their idea of … let’s keep the cost of operating a business low for everyone.”

Eschewing those one-offs and focusing on making the city an appealing long-term place to do business paid off. “It worked by keeping city services excellent; our schools are terrific, and [it brought] businesses who weren’t looking for that one-off short-term incentive, but were really looking to move to a location where they wanted to be for 50 years or more.”

Jeffries also credits the city’s commitment to balancing residential development with commercial to make sure city services are well supported by property taxes. “Everyone wants to build residential because residential sells, but … if you don’t put in some commercial uses, these large residential areas throw an imbalance into the school district and other taxing bodies,” she says.

“I always say, Apple is across the street from Anderson’s. Dean’s is across the street from Gap. Lululemon is across from Naper Nuts & Sweets. … It’s this combo that brings all kinds of folks that want to enjoy both.” Downtown Naperville Alliance President Katie Wood

4. Driving Revenue

“Auto dealers in Naperville account for about 30 percent of the total sales tax,” Jeffries says. A deliberate move by the city more than a decade ago fueled that economic boon—$10 million in 2017. “About 12 years ago, the city was approached by the new owner of the Burlington Northern land that was out between Ogden and Fort Hill Drive … and they were going to come in with a major light-industrial development,” Jeffries says. “The city … asked them to reconsider and create new auto lots.” The change drew six new dealerships to the area and also allowed existing land-locked dealerships to expand in Naperville rather than moving elsewhere.

The city’s Naperville Auto Test Track further supports 13 area dealerships, providing an area for customers to test-drive passenger cars in a closed road environment.

5. Downtown Redevelopment

Downtown Naperville’s retail mix has managed to strike a balance between indie shops that make it unique and national retailers with name recognition and broad appeal. “To have those choices is really what makes this place very, very attractive,” Anderson says. “I think we’ve found that nice balance of small businesses and chain businesses, but most importantly keeping the feel of a small community.”

That mix is due in large part to property owners who have stayed downtown and reinvested in its development, Wood says. “We have to thank the Yackleys, the Rubins, and the Ryans, and all the big names that have invested in this town. I credit those investors that really supported the downtown with the development of the Main Street Promenade, the Water Street District, Main Place …  that brought some really strong, nationally popular retailers,” she says. “I always say, Apple is across the street from Anderson’s. Dean’s is across the street from Gap. Lululemon is across from Naper Nuts & Sweets. … It’s this combo that brings all kinds of folks that want to enjoy both,” Wood says.

“I think we’ve found that nice balance of small businesses and chain businesses, but most importantly keeping the feel of a small community.” Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce President Nicki Anderson

6. Greenlighting Growth

Some of Naperville’s most exciting developments in hospitality and entertainment were made possible by zoning changes: Freedom Commons was originally zoned for office use, while the area near I-88 and Route 59 (that houses Top Golf and coming-soon Whirlyball) was previously zoned for research and development, Jeffries says. Freedom Commons now has more than a dozen restaurants that serve the surrounding office community without competing with Naperville’s other dining options.

“The pie has grown,” Jeffries says. “They’re not stealing from one another so much as they are growing the entire industry. That’s where we’ve seen this amazing amount of growth in the last 10 years since Freedom Commons and the downtown has continued to thrive.”

Another such change shaped Naperville’s robust hotel landscape—with 19 hotels and about 2,500 rooms—for the better. “In the late ’90s, we were getting overloaded by limited- and select-service hotels that were taking up a lot of the demand, but they were not bringing in a lot of new business,” Jeffries says. The city made a text amendment requiring hotels in certain areas to be full service, with banquet space.

“Once we put restrictions on limited-service hotels  … we saw Hotel Arista come in; we saw Marriott do a $40 million upgrade; we had Embassy Suites come in,” Jeffries says.

For downtown Naperville in particular, the 2016 opening of Hotel Indigo in the Water Street District has been a boon.

“That’s added a huge engine to the downtown business,” Wood says. “When [hotel guests] come downtown, they want to dine, they want to get a new tie, they want to get an ice cream cone.”

“Businesses want to hire the best and the brightest, and they can attract the best and the brightest if they have a school district where they want to put their children.” Naperville Development Partnership and Naperville Convention & Visitors Bureau President Christine Jeffries

7. Community Synergy

Naperville businesses support the community and the community supports the businesses, creating a positive feedback loop. “When people want to come do business here and spend money here, it duplicates itself,” Anderson says. “I tell businesses all the time that move to Naperville: If you’re not involved in the community, you won’t thrive. You just won’t.” Vibrant community events also bolster businesses as well. “We have a variety of events that just keep the community together and strong, things like Ribfest and Last Fling,” Wood says. “It’s a very involved and supportive community.”

Ahead of the Curve

Steve Wilson, a Naperville resident and senior urban designer with global design firm Gensler, researched the growth of three prosperous Illinois downtown districts—Elmhurst, Naperville, and Normal—for a report he presented at the American Planning Association’s Illinois State Conference in September 2017. Of the three cities in his report, Naperville had the most businesses and the earliest start in the redevelopment process.

“Naperville breaks a lot of rules. They don’t have a big downtown residential population. They’re not next to a train. And they have national tenants—they have an Apple Store for goodness’ sake,” he says. “It’s interesting, because shopping malls are starting to change to be more like town centers, and in this way, Naperville was way ahead of the curve.”

Wilson’s research included giving each downtown a walkability score by counting passersby at peak times. “Naperville has an astonishingly high pedestrian traffic count. There might be something like 180 people walking up and down Jefferson in 10 minutes. If you took [that same count] in Wheaton, it might be like 12,” Wilson says. “That’s when I thought, there is something really extraordinary here.”