JOLIET – It was more than 40 years ago when then Joliet Councilman Bob Hacker heard about land deals in the works where the Louis Joliet Mall stands today.
"A friend of mine told me there was a real estate guy buying up land and keeping it quiet," Hacker said Wednesday during an interview at the mall, which opened in 1978.
Hacker knew the potential impact of the mall and the importance of having it part of Joliet. In the months that followed, Hacker went to work talking with people who lived in the area, persuading them to annex into the city so that Joliet could extend its boundaries and eventually become home to the mall.
Last week, the city council approved an honorary designation in Hacker's honor for the section of Essington Road where he did a lot of persuading – between Caton Farm Road and Hennepin Drive.
His daughter Diane Hacker sought the designation, which was approved just day's before her father's 82nd birthday.
"My daughter put this together," Hacker said. "I didn't know anything about it until I saw her at the pre-council meeting (on TV). I almost had a heart attack."
Council members voting for the honor commented that they did so after learning how vital a role Hacker actually played in the mall becoming part of Joliet.
Looking back at the annexation push, Hacker said he often met with homeowners on his own, but he also went to meetings accompanied by city planner Frank Albert, who has since died.
The late Mayor Maurice Berlinsky appointed him "to see what I could do," Hacker said, after he reported what he had learned about the attempts to buy up land for the mall.
Hacker not only met with residents – many of whom did not like what they were hearing – but he also went calling on Homart Development Company, the Sears subsidiary that at the time was a big builder of indoor shopping malls.
"I tried to get a meeting, and they kept putting it off," Hacker said of his first calls to Homart. "So I said, 'You don't let me in, I'm going to blow this up in the news media.' We had a meeting."
Homart, which eventually planned to build its own water and sewer system, became particularly interested, Hacker said, when they learned the city could supply the mall from its new West Side water plant.
It was a different era when a single councilman would play a lead role in bringing such a big project into the city. The landscape looked a lot different, too. The land between the mall and Black Road, where the city border was then, mostly open land and farm fields.
"Essington Road was a gravel road that went down to nothing," Hacker said. "Theodore Street was like a slough."
Plainfield and Crest Hill fought Joliet's efforts to annex the mall, hoping to bring the the big project and the tax dollars it would generate into the towns.
But Joliet obviously won out.
A letter from James Haller, the city's retired community and economic development director, supporting the honorary street designation for Hacker, describes his contribution to the mall annexation.
"Bob spent many evenings with landowners gaining their trust and cooperation," Haller wrote. "Because of his efforts the Louis Joliet Mall was built."
The city wrote into the annexation agreement with Homart that the mall name must include the word "Joliet."
"That's how it became Louis Joliet Mall," Hacker said. "We didn't care what they called it as long as Joliet was in the name."