Wheaton: Best place to live in Illinois?

Mayor Michael Gresk credits stability and continuity in public involvement across city government

Wheaton’s signature old DuPage County Courthouse has been repurposed as the center of a vital condominium development downtown. (Flickr/MrPanyGoff)

Wheaton’s signature old DuPage County Courthouse has been repurposed as the center of a vital condominium development downtown. (Flickr/MrPanyGoff)

By Ted Cox

Wheaton is the best place to live in Illinois — if you trust Money magazine, and maybe even if you don’t.

Money recently ranked the Chicago western suburb 27th on its list of best U.S. places to live, cited in an end-of-year piece in the Daily Herald. Schaumburg was the only other Illinois town to make the top 50, at 34.

It’s nothing new for Wheaton.

“It’s hardly perennial, but it’s happened before,” Mayor Michael Gresk said Monday as he prepared for a City Council meeting that night. “We’ve been top 50 twice now that I can recall over the past 12, 15 years.”

Money magazine cited the strong schools, led by Wheaton North, Wheaton Warrenville South, and Glenbard South High School, and others routinely laud the town library. Gresk added the Park District, and — running down a list of names of people who’ve held high positions in those government agencies for decades — said it was the stability and continuity in people offering public service that made the town what it is.

“People like me are dedicated to it and they enjoy it and they like it,” said Gresk, who has 117 days left in his term (not that anyone’s counting) as he declined to seek re-election after 12 years in the post. “There are just good people who step up. No real experience is needed, just a decision to help.”

Gresk also credited “thoughtful leadership” that knows when something about civic life needs a little change, and when good things should be left as they are.

Wheaton has a firm foundation as a religious community from its founding, and as home to Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater. It was a dry town for almost a century, ending it 1985.

“That has been a boom,” Gresk said of finally breaking Prohibition, adding that Wheaton used to be considered “a sleepy little town” where “the joke was the sidewalks used to roll up at 5 o’clock.”

At the same time, according to Gresk, Wheaton was adopting the philosophy to revive its downtown by encouraging residential units there — counterintuitive, at the time, to many suburbs’ way of thinking.

Yet it worked, he said, pointing to Courthouse Square, in which the old red-brick DuPage County Courthouse was repurposed as the center of a condominium development. That’s something Rock Island should perhaps consider as it moves through the final stages before demolishing the County Courthouse there, set for later this month.

Gresk said the downtown residences — both owners and renters — have spurred longterm growth in local restaurants, which has invigorated the town overall.

Money also cited the year-round festivals, including Shakespeare in the Park.

Gresk said the town has succeeded in balancing stability with necessary change so that Wheaton doesn’t seem stodgy, which in turn contributes to people choosing to live there and then putting down roots.

“If there is not a certain level of comfort,” Gresk said, “people move on.”