April Maher pushes a shopping cart through the crowded aisles at Jerry's Fruit and Garden Center on Milwaukee Avenue. Maher, who lives in neighboring Park Ridge, places two cartons of strawberries in her cart and says she likes to shop in Niles. "Even when I take a full cart to my car I don't think I've spent 20 bucks," she says, referring to the competitive pricing at the locally-owned market. "You're hard-pressed to drop 20 bucks at Jerry's."
Maher's visit to Niles is music to the ears of the village fathers. Attracting shoppers from surrounding communities is one revenue strategy that the village board uses to support its Public Services Department.
In Niles, the Public Services Department enjoys the high visibility usually afforded only to fire and police departments.
Information about services is in such demand that the Niles Public Services Department 2009 calendar features the NPSD in action. For example, January highlights garbage and recycling pickup, and August spotlights a one-of-a-kind transportation program -- free bus service within the village. Since the free service began 36 years ago, it has carried more than 9 million riders. This is a village that works.
Village Manager George Van Geem says stable leadership from an experienced village board keeps services working. "Some board members have served up to 20 years," he said. Other elected officials, even longer. In August 2008, Nicholas Blase, 80, retired after 47 years as mayor.
"We have one of the lowest property taxes in Cook County. Of course some [municipalities] don't levy any at all," Van Geem said. Niles levies 28.4 cents on every $100 of EAV, or equalized assessed value. Van Geem estimates the average tax levied per homeowner at $4,800. It is the revenue returned to the community from a 10 percent sales tax that keeps Niles humming.
Katie Schneider, executive director of the Niles Chamber of Commerce, says the village is business-friendly and responsive to commercial owners and homeowners alike.
"Like Chicago, Niles has a large Polish population and it is not uncommon to hear Polish spoken on the street. There is a significant growth in Korean-owned businesses and consequently residents," she said. "Assi Plaza is one location. [And] the new [Super] H Market is a destination in itself." The Super H Mart, which offers everything from fresh fish to a food court, is touted as one of the largest Asian markets in the country.
Niles' Korean residents are sponsoring the first Korean Business Fair and Festival this summer. Van Deem says, "Niles' newest residents are here to build the American dream. There are 50 languages spoken within the Niles school district. We are a village that welcomes diversity."
"You don't find better neighbors than here," Deputy Police Chief Charles Giovannelli says. "This is a closely-knit community."
The Niles police department works directly with residents through Crime Stoppers and supports a special service officer program that keeps mobile patrols visible in the residential neighborhoods. Is Niles a safe place to live? "Absolutely," Giovannelli says.
Van Geem says the village has a commitment to "greening." Even the building codes are being rewritten to be more eco-sensitive. He cites the community's rain garden, its recycling program and a proposed PACE Bus Rapid Transit System from Jefferson Park to Golf Mill Shopping Center as examples of their efforts.
The Niles Park District and the Niles Public Library District are independent of the village, but Van Geem says they are its crown jewels. "Our pride and joy is how I put it," he says.
When the library opened 50 years ago, its stacks of 3,600 books served 750 families during the 13 hours it was open each week. Today 30,000 library cardholders access the Library 24-7 via its Web site. The stacks? 270,000 books. The service area? 58,000 patrons from Niles and parts of unincorporated Des Plaines and Glenview.
The Park District sponsors the Fourth of July celebration, which includes a two-hour parade and a community-wide picnic.
The July Fourth event convinced Linda Pappalardo that her decision to move to Niles 13 years ago with her two daughters was the right thing to do.
"It was not the little suburban parade I thought it would be," she said. "It was full-blown [with] marching bands, the Jesse White Tumblers, and I was impressed at the atmosphere."
A day at the parade showed her that Niles also was a good place to raise a family.
Pappalardo says, "Niles is affordable for this part of the northern suburbs. Home prices are lower than Park Ridge, and the schools and services are good, really good." Niles boasts 14 elementary schools, five junior high schools, five public high schools and two private high schools.
One of Pappalardo's daughters was selected to greet Hillary Clinton when she visited Niles during her 50th birthday homecoming; the U.S. secretary of state is a native of Park Ridge. "I was more thrilled than my daughter was," Pappalardo said of her then 7-year-old. One of the places that Clinton visited was Booby's Charcoal Rib, a hangout in her high school years and one that remains popular today.
Michael Protofanousis remembers the day that Clinton came in. Protofanousis now manages Booby's, which is owned by his father, Steve, and Andy Vinieratos. "My dad told me that she and her friends hung out here when they were in high school," he said.
It's easy to hang out at this fast/casual restaurant. Its reputation for barbecued skirt steak is known throughout the northern suburbs. "Another favorite is the Big Boob," Protofanousis said of the specialty burger that is served with barbecue sauce and cole slaw on a bun. Booby's opened 30 years ago and is one of the oldest businesses in Niles.
The energetic can bike on Monroe Street and onto the North Branch Bicycle Trail, turning north toward Highland Park or south into the city.
From Niles, members of the car culture can access several highways. The village also is served by PACE, while Metra service is available nearby in Des Plaines, Park Ridge or Morton Grove.
Patrick Dalessandro says accessibility is repeatedly mentioned when clients are looking for a home in Niles. Dalessandro, owner-broker of GMAC Coachlight Realty and Property Management for 35 years, specializes in residential real estate.
"Niles is holding its own," he says. "The community is sought after because of its proximity to the city. We are 15 minutes to O'Hare and 25 minutes to the Loop."
"We do have single-family detached new homes from builders that knew what they were doing," he says, referring to the overbuilding that went on a few years ago. The teardowns and subsequent building of $800,000 McMansions in Niles neighborhoods resulted in huge devaluations. Today, these homes are selling for $300,000 to $500,000. "These houses didn't belong in Niles," he says. "The biggest devaluations have come in those homes."
Dalessandro says a typical listing would be a three-bedroom brick ranch with a two-car garage, full and finished basement, dining room and a side drive. "Today I would list that property at $379,000; prior to today's market I would have listed it at $390,000.
"I can't get enough of these," he said.