It all started with the Fox River.
It gave Aurora's earliest settlers a place to set up their mills. It afforded the city's industrial-era manufacturers a source for both water and, often, garbage disposal. And in recent years it provided municipal leaders with a centerpiece around which to envision a new beginning.
RiverEdge Park by the numbersTotal cost: $18.5 million
Music Garden construction cost: $13.2 million
Grant funding spent so far: $13 million
Seating capacity: 8,500
Venue size: 10 acres
Distance from I-88: 3 miles
Distance from Chicago: Roughly 40 miles
Distance from the end of the Metra Burlington Northern Santa Fe line: Roughly 200 yards
Bike path connections: Access to 33 miles of the Fox River Trail between the park and Crystal Lake
Cost of a burger: $6 or $7
Cost of a beer: $5 or $6
For Illinois' second-largest city, a fresh phase of riverfront land use is about to dawn with the official opening Friday of RiverEdge Park, an $18.5 million public space and concert venue along the eastern shore of the Fox.
On the northern edge of Aurora's downtown, the park has been in the planning stages since 2006 as the key part of a vision for economic and riverfront revitalization through creation of an outdoor performance space and recreation hub.
"Not long ago, this was the location of a number of underused or crumbling industrial sites," Mayor Tom Weisner says, looking over the new park from the VIP deck, taking in pristine views of the river and stage. "It was really my desire as I came in as mayor to begin to clean up our riverfront because the Fox River is truly one of our greatest assets."
The section of the park that opens Friday to play host to the 17th annual Blues on the Fox festival is called the Music Garden, and it's the first phase of what will be a larger development. The park eventually will encompass both sides of the river, connecting east and west with a bridge for walkers and bikers.
While work remains to be done on much of the park, Aurora officials say the portion opening Friday already promises to draw many new visitors, boost the local economy and carry on Aurora's musical tradition -- especially in blues.
"We will begin to utilize this park as a way to revitalize our older and historic neighborhoods in Aurora," Weisner says. "That is our vision. You see the first part of that vision here today."
A river, a park
Looking to revitalize its downtown, Aurora embarked on a master planning process, resulting in the Seize the Future master plan of 2006. It called for a park on Broadway Avenue across from the historic train roundhouse. It was to be called Riverview Park.
"From there, it grew," Stephane Phifer, Aurora's director of planning and zoning, says.
A committee of residents, aldermen, park district officials, business leaders and others sought ideas from numerous sources and turned them into the RiverEdge Park Master Plan of 2007. The plan laid out a sprawling shoreline park with five distinct spaces: a redeveloped Wilder Park west side gathering area, a pedestrian bridge, a children's playground and market space, a wetland environmental center and a musical performance venue with a lawn.
The plan placed the park just steps from the end of Metra's Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line at the Aurora Transportation Center, allowing easy access for commuters from Chicago and plenty of parking spaces without paving new ground, says Charlie Zine, an Aurora resident and member of the RiverEdge Park committee.
The committee also developed a tagline: "A park that is a river. A river that is a park."
The focus quickly shifted to music. After all, downtown Aurora's Leland Hotel was the site where John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, a blues artist known for his harmonica stylings, recorded his first 44 songs in 1937 and 1938.
"The public decided they wanted to see the music venue first," Phifer says.
A vision alive
The city hired consultants and hosted a competition among architects to design an outdoor music venue beside the river. Architects knew the city was looking for a major gathering place, a game-changer, and they formulated their designs accordingly, says David Steele, a senior project architect with Mueller + Mueller, Ltd., whose company won the contest and got the gig.
"We took the original concept from the competition, which was and still is the basis for the park," Steele says. "That was a starting point."
Phifer says nothing significant changed from the original idea. Aurora wanted a performance stage large enough to host nationally known artists on the north end of a seating lawn and a concrete area with a separate building for concessions and ticket sales, paths for food vendors and sparkling views of the river.
That's exactly what it got.
"We really stuck to the vision the whole way through construction," Phifer says.
Bringing the RiverEdge Park vision to life along with Steele's company was a team of sound engineers, theater and landscape designers and wetland specialists -- many of whom have large-scale experience from Chicago's Millennium Park. The team sketched and calculated carefully, Steele says, aiming to provide the best lines of sight for all -- from hard-core fans who prefer to jam out as close as possible to the stage, to the more laid-back set seeking comfortable lawn seating farther away.
The concessions and ticket sales building, adorned by a VIP rooftop viewing deck, was meticulously placed to neutralize sound from nearby Broadway Avenue and provide top-notch concert acoustics, says Aaron Downey with the sound engineering firm Talaske Sound Thinking.
With a seating capacity of 8,500 in Illinois' second-largest city, RiverEdge Park certainly adds a landmark to the Chicago-area concert map, says Tim Rater, president and CEO of the Aurora Civic Center Authority, which is planning the park's programming during its first season.
And it's even accessible by boat. A dock on the south side of the park, near Jake's Bagels & Deli, allows paddlers to park their canoes or kayaks and head straight from the river that started it all to the park Aurora officials hope will bring new life to their city.
A vision, some riverfront cleanup, several grants and seven years made it all possible.
"This has allowed us to take what was an unusable eyesore and make it a beautiful park venue," Weisner says. "We actually have a beautiful venue to share with the world, and it was a long time coming."