West suburban politicians beamed as they dug shovels into scruffy industrial land two years ago to herald a new Metra station meant to redefine the blue-collar town of Bellwood with tony condos and shops.
But the station was not built, and the dream was largely abandoned.
Loans totaling $24 million hang over taxpayers, and $22 million of that is coming due in full by year's end — close to what the suburb of 19,000 collects in taxes and other revenue in an entire year. Another $15.5 million is owed for buildings the suburb pursued in court.
Bellwood officials say they are victims of the recession, but along the way the suburb paid millions of dollars above appraisals for properties, sold one at a major loss to a mob-linked company and employed a project manager whom prosecutors later described as "a dishonest person with no moral compass."
Bellwood also did not gain permission from freight carrier Union Pacific — whose operations could have been affected and which had the power to kill the project — before launching a costly, all-in land grab.
Still the development advanced as far as landing congressional earmarks for millions of dollars.
Mayor Frank Pasquale declined to talk about the project. He issued a statement saying the "carefully developed" plan fell apart because of the real estate market collapse.
"They took a chance, and it backfired," said chief of staff Peter Tsiolis.
The town is working to renegotiate the loans and appealing to get out of the $15.5 million settlement. In court records, Bellwood said even having to pay that settlement would lead to "financial ruin" and leave the town unable to provide basic services.
The proposal surfaced in 2004 and centered on shuttering tiny Metra stations in Bellwood and Melrose Park and replacing them with a massive station flanked by parking garages in an industrial area off Lake Street. The station would attract condos and shops, even a satellite college campus, revamping 77 acres that straddle the border of both suburbs.
But the vision had a blind spot: The station would sit at the mouth of Union Pacific's massive Proviso rail yards, one of the area's busiest, complicating rail expansion and raising safety concerns, with scores of freight trains chugging back and forth daily.
Pasquale said the town was working first with suburban developer Ron Scarlato. He owned land at the center of the project area, but Pasquale said those talks "ceased" in 2006.
Scarlato sued the suburb in 2009, accusing village officials of going after him with harassing code enforcement over the train project and because the mayor's son lost a job the developer said he landed for him. Scarlato won a large settlement, though the village admitted no wrongdoing.
Scarlato called the train station project unfeasible in the suit. He declined to answer Tribune questions.
Around the time Pasquale says the Scarlato talks ended, the village unveiled its station development proposal at a public meeting. The plan was authored by a joint venture that included Anthony Bruno, whose small firm was also contracted as the town's project management department.
The report didn't detail potential problems with Union Pacific's rail yards or the critical need to get the company on board. It didn't provide an extensive market study on whether the housing could sell, or a detailed feasibility study on how to pay for it all.
Tucked in the back of the report, a letter from then-Metra Director Phil Pagano raised logistical concerns, writing to Bellwood's mayor in 2004 that the site "could prove to be somewhat problematic and costly to develop."
Bellwood digs $40 million hole for taxpayers, has no new Metra station to show for it
All-in plans for a redefining Metra station leave Bellwood in a lurch
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