Kadner: New mayor offers ‘hope’ to The Island
By Phil Kadner email@example.com May 22, 2013 9:06PM
Domingo Vargas, the new and first Hispanic mayor of Blue Island, Wednesday, May 22, 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 24, 2013 1:51PM
His grandmother walked across the Mexican border all the way to Blue Island nearly 100 years ago.
Having arrived, she lived in a box car in the Rock Island Railroad yard for years.
Today, Domingo Vargas, her grandson, is a defense attorney and the first Hispanic mayor of Blue Island.
“My maternal great-grandmother died on a roadside after crossing the border with her children during the Mexican War,” Vargas, 51, said. “They buried her there and kept on walking. My grandmother was about 14 or 15 years old at the time.
“They crossed the border and kept on walking until they got to Blue Island. They were not illegals. They paid five cents to enter to the United States. That’s what it cost at the time,”
Vargas was elected mayor April 9 after serving more than 20 years as an alderman. Last week, he was officially sworn into office, replacing longtime Mayor Donald Peloquin.
“It’s the American dream,” Vargas said of the life he’s living due to the sacrifices and grit of his great-grandmother and grandmother. “You come here to build a better life. And I believe that’s what I exemplify to the community, not only as mayor, but in my profession.
“With hard work and dedication, anything is possible.”
Vargas hopes he can spread that “can do” spirit to the city he now represents.
Blue Island has a population of 23,000 — 47 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black and 21 percent white, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures. The median household income is $43,000.
“My first goal is to unite the community and get the citizenry working together,” Vargas said. “I want people to become community minded.
“You know how President John F. Kennedy said ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?’ Well, that’s the concept I want to spread in Blue Island about the city.”
Vargas said as an example to the community he is personally painting the second floor of Blue Island City Hall.
“Not just my office,” he said when I raised the issue, “the entire floor. I’ve got it about half done.”
But Vargas knows there are larger questions on the minds of Blue Island residents, who have seen businesses close and stores remain vacant for years.
“I want to revitalize the town north to south, east to west. There is interest in developing the old Kline’s building,” he said, refusing to reveal who exactly is interested.
The Kline’s Department Store, once an anchor in the heart of Blue Island’s business district on Western Avenue, has been vacant for years. It has become a symbol for many residents of the city’s economic decline.
A vacant car dealership and factory nearly 119th Street and Vincennes Avenue also have been vacant for a long time.
Those buildings are in the 7th Ward, where Vargas served as alderman.
“There are 90 acres of land available there, including and beyond those properties, and I hope to develop it for commercial or light industry,” the mayor said. “I emphasize light-industrial (use). It would be an economic boon to the city.”
Why haven’t the existing structures, considered eyesores by some, been demolished?
“We didn’t have the money,” Vargas said. “There were also environmental problems with the cleanup, EPA regulations, that would be quite expensive.”
A lack of money also resulted in the closing of the Chatham and Division street bridges over the Calumet Sag Channel, closing two key north-south streets to residents and potential consumers traveling to the city.
“The cost of replacing those bridges was estimated at $10 million, and we didn’t have the money,” Vargas said.
“My understanding is that Blue Island is the only municipality in the state of Illinois that owns two bridges across a body of water. We own the bridges and were told in the past they had to be completely replaced. They were built in the 1950s.
“I recently learned that we may be able to repair one bridge at a reduced cost, and we’re looking at that. But we need money from the state, and I’m working on that.”
In the past, there was speculation that a feud between Peloquin (a Republican) and state Rep. Bobby Rita (D-Blue Island) had resulted in the state withholding funds. Peloquin became mayor by defeating Rita’s father.
Vargas is close to Rita. So will state money now begin to flow?
“I’ve talked to the representative, and he is working on the funding from the state,” Vargas said. “He has to work through IDOT, and as you know the state has its own financial problems right now.”
Vargas said he will be aggressive in pursuing economic development opportunities.
“I have sources in Berwyn, which has done a great job of developing Cermak Road, who are going to help us,” he said.
Asked if those sources were businessmen or government officials, Vargas said they were Berwyn city employees who are involved in economic development there.
He said he has also reached out to someone who runs a Second City-style comedy troupe to develop such an organization for the youth of Blue Island.
“We want to give at-risk teenagers something constructive to do,” Vargas said.
Another connection in California is interested in building a multimedia space on Western Avenue, the mayor said.
“Blue Island is a wonderful place,” Vargas said. “But I want to restore a sense of community spirit. Of hope.
“My great-grandmother came here with nothing but hope for a better future. With hard work and hope you can accomplish anything.”