Spotlight: Shari Gardner, Lake Bluff
Originally from the West Coast, Shari Gardner spent much of her life soaking in the sun around the San Francisco Bay area.
For 12 years she worked for one of the nation’s largest software companies in her home state, but after new work opportunities for her husband opened the door for Gardner to exit the corporate world and spend more time with her family, the couple and their two young children decided to take on the move and in 2008 eventually headed for Illinois.
Gardner and her husband had already purchased homes in California and Denver in the past, but when the pair began looking in the quiet lakefront community of Winnetka, and, later, Lake Bluff, it was quickly clear something about Illinois was different.
“When we moved here our real estate agent said, ‘Who’s your lawyer?’ and we said, ‘We don’t need a lawyer,’” Gardner said. “He said, ‘Well, everyone has a lawyer,’ and we thought, ‘That seems kind of weird.’”
The agent also gave Gardner a list of local contacts who he said could best assist her with negotiating the best tax rate for her home, something the new resident said she found “troubling.” The overwhelming barrage of confusing paperwork and non-transparent fees that followed made for a strange and unexpected first impression of Illinois, she said.
“I called my friend and said we’d spent a few days looking at houses and said, ‘It feels corrupt,’” Gardner recalled. “It’s not normal. ....It is very different in this state. When you’re coming from out of state, red flags kind of go up right away. ...The housing process was really shady.”
Right away, Gardner said she felt some hesitation.
Had there been more clarity and evenly applied standards, she would have felt more at ease, she said.
“There needs to be transparency and openness and a set process where everybody gets affected by the same [standards]; [housing] needs to be simpler,” she said. “You don’t want to get into this system that you don’t even trust.”
Soon, she began noticing other things that felt odd, like writing a check out directly to Secretary of State Jesse White, and not the Department of Motor Vehicles (though that has since changed).
As an outsider fresh to the area, Gardner said it was “amazing how quickly you get used to” the feeling that something was off in Illinois.
“The housing process was probably my first introduction [to a state] that kind of made me think, ‘Wait a minute, we have to pay attention to what’s going on here with the government more than we did other places,’” she added. “And then you start hearing about all this other stuff, about Madigan, about public schools losing all this money, about the pensions.”
Confronting Barriers To Growth
Gardner said she first learned of Illinois’ $250 billion pension deficit when she enrolled her kids in the local public schools system and her husband took a seat on the school board. More than once she watched as “terrible” administrators and teachers took pre-retirement salary increases and then retired with a hefty pension, only to go on and take other jobs in public service, eventually collecting multiple pensions.
To better meet the needs of her son and to no longer feel like she was a part of what she felt was a corrupt machine, Gardner said she took her kids out of the public school system and enrolled in a local private school.
“It was a relief to be out of it,” she said.
Though her family’s educational circumstances improved, Gardner said she began to notice another problem: racial segregation and inequality along the North Shore. More than just a “lack of diversity,” Gardner believed outright racism had kept the cluster of affluent towns surrounding her full of predominantly white residents.
Because the majority of people are skewed into roughly the same demographics, Gardner said the area has not only had less cultural enrichment and understanding, but the local economy has suffered as well.
“When people around here say, ‘We need more diversity,’ they miss the whole point, that we’re losing a lot of economic growth, a lot of economic development,” Gardner said. “When you have that kind of population where everybody’s the same, you don’t grow.”
“All these little downtown areas are struggling: Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, Winnetka, Highland Park, you see these little shops and they’re just in and out, in and out.”
She said among other things she would like to see more of an investment in mixed income housing, a policy she said she herself has been guilty of voting against in the past.
“I want to think about my own culpability in racial injustice,” she said. “And I recognized that as a white person, especially living where I live, you’re part of the situation, and until you own it and want to change it and see the benefit and see what they’ve lost” things will remain stagnant.
Gardner hoped that whichever of the gubernatorial candidates wins the Illinois governor’s seat in 2018 will put a focus on healing racial inequality in the state, leading to cultural and economic growth.
With more economic growth comes better jobs and better educational opportunities, which can also help cull some of the state’s violence, she said.
“I think that’s a value that Democrats, Republicans, we can all agree is key to growth,” Gardner said. “I think the winners are going to be the people who can somehow weave that fabric back together.”
But despite Illinois’ long standing reputation for corruption, Gardner said she’s also learned to love many things about the state she’s now called home for a decade.
Among her favorite features is Lake Michigan, an invaluable “key” natural resource that Gardner believes is one of the state’s most valuable assets.
Not only does the massive lake provide generous amounts of clean water surface area that can be used as a source of renewable energy, but with better utilization, it can also help usher in a new economic boon for tourists and businesses, she said.
“It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing, this is our air, our water, our children,” she said. “It’s what going to attract people here. Not just the water, but the views, just everything.”
“I think people coming [to Illinois] who are young and want to start businesses don’t realize there’s water, and you’re not just stuck in the Midwest.”
In the future, Gardner said more emphasis and marketing around the lake could help drive more business and talent to the state.
“I would like to see Illinois leading that effort to protect [Lake Michigan],” she said. “To create a culture around the fact we have this natural resource no one else in the world has.”
To that end, Gardner said she also believed the “Chicago brand” was essential to drawing in fresh ideas and commerce to Illinois.
The state’s largest city (and third largest in the country) is an epicenter to a breadth of cultural facets like the arts, architecture, history, food and music, as well as home to technology companies and start-ups, universities and much more.
While many of the city’s big Downtown draws like Lollapalooza, Taste of Chicago, and others consistently tend to attract tourists and locals, Gardner said she’d like to see an investment in the smaller, more localized venues and events, such as neighborhood street festivals and storefront entertainment venues, which reflect more of the city’s true character.
“When I’m in another state and I mention to people Chicago they always give a smile,” Gardner said. “I think that continuing to support and foster things that build that community” you can highlight the city in new and interesting ways that only help Chicago and Illinois grow.
Hope For The Future
Though Lake Michigan and Chicago are huge economic draws to the state, Gardner still has her worries in housing, education, pension reform, unity and fighting decades of corruption.
But to make for a better tomorrow, the conversation must be elevated beyond partisan politics, she said. Increasingly, it will take more and more independent thinking and a real, hard look at the issues among voters in order to try and forge the best path forward, she said.
“Living here and having been a Democrat my whole life, I have occasionally voted for Republicans,” Gardner said, adding she’d cast a vote for Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, in 2014.
“I think the only way we can get people to do it is to break these down into smaller issues and get people to talk honestly, and then somehow separate from both parties.”
When she’s not talking politics with friends, the University of Southern California graduate is spending time with her son and daughter, in seventh and eighth grade, respectively, her husband, and the family dog, Amber.
Gardner said in recent months she’s also picked up a weekly regiment of Yoga, which has helped the stay-at-home mom more easily connect with other women in the area.
Ultimately, Gardner said she enjoys her quiet life near the lake in Illinois, but acknowledged that she felt it would take a long-term plan full of “baby steps” to truly change the state’s direction and overall reputation for corruption.
“I think people want to move beyond what’s current, I think they want to see the future: What could this place look like?” Gardner said. “What if you weren’t handed a list of people to talk to to negotiate your taxes? Or what if you didn’t have people retiring [with multiple pensions]? What would that look like, what would it free up? What would the world look like if we had the honesty and the transparency, if we weren’t in the situation we’re in?”