How suburbs along the Fox River have transformed themselves
Most suburbs are a product of urban growth that spread from Chicago, but the history of towns along the Fox River is much different.
Municipalities such as Aurora and Elgin were born not as suburbs but as independent towns that boomed in the late 1800s from an influx of workers for the local industries that sprouted along the railways that flanked the river.
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But in the 20th century, unlike such suburbs as Arlington Heights, Naperville, Schaumburg and Wheaton that flourished as a result of the rails and roads that brought their populations, Fox River towns faced a challenge. Many of their industries closed or relocated, leaving communities to grapple with the remnants of industrial development while trying to newly capitalize on the Fox River as an asset.
"When I first came to the Fox River valley in the late 1980s, I drove along the Fox River through all the communities. My first impression was that there were a lot of communities that turned their backs on the river," said Roger Dahlstrom, senior research associate with the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University.
"That has changed radically. Communities all along the river have rediscovered it as a natural attraction."
Efforts to showcase the river and the communities' downtown areas along it have not come easy. Some local leaders say recent tough economic times put a damper on redevelopment. But consider some of the recent efforts:
• Last month, Aurora unveiled its $18.5 million RiverEdge Park, a 10-acre site fronting the Fox with a Music Garden — an amphitheater-style music venue that accommodates 8,500 with preferred bench and lawn seating. The park also offers a bike path and boat launch, and provides immediate access to Metra trains and Pace buses. Aurora's annual Blues on the Fox fest debuted the new park and featured Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. Eventually, city leaders hope to build a pedestrian bridge spanning the river to allow greater access to the park.
• Elgin's Gail Borden Public Library and Festival Park boast eye-catching views of the Fox River. Some residential development along or near the river is completed, but the total plan is still in the works. The long-awaited rebuilding of Riverside Drive, which runs along the riverbank, is expected to be completed sometime this fall. City leaders hope that will encourage an influx of new business.
• Algonquin has developed two parks along the river. Now, officials want to try to foster recreation opportunities such as kayaking and paddle boating on the river, both prominent components of a new downtown plan adopted in April.
• Geneva adopted a downtown master plan last year that calls for redeveloping the former site of the iconic Mill Race Inn restaurant, which fronts the river, with a building housing residences, stores and restaurants.
• Batavia is working on how to turn the shoreline into more of an attraction. The town already boasts Depot Pond, the Riverwalk and Clark Island Park, but it is grappling with the fact that much of the riverfront abuts the backside of businesses.
• St. Charles recognized the Fox River as a key to drawing people to its downtown, os in 2002 it created its River Corridor Foundation. The recession, however, slowed down those plans, and to date, only a few of the minor aspects of the vision, like the Bob Leonard Walkway and a canoe launch, have been completed. Nonetheless, the city's downtown, particularly its night life, can be described only as bustling.
Those redevelopment efforts are important because when the river becomes a part of people's daily lives, they're more apt to appreciate its value, said Gary Swick, president of Friends of the Fox River.
"Most municipalities are experiencing some kind of renewal or honoring of the river as an important resource," Swick said.
Friends of the Fox River focuses on protecting and restoring the river's water quality through cleanup and restoration projects, which in turn promote public education, Swick said.
"People may change their behaviors. They might support a tax increase that will protect water quality," he said. "People care about things they have relationships with."
Kayaking is a great way to get acquainted with the river, Swick said.
"Most people have never paddled on the river," he said. "When they do it, they all enjoy the experience and say they want do it again. That's really a strong thing. It's in a different zone than going to the movie."
Downtown neighborhood groups and associations also have played a key role in pushing for lasting river improvements, said Jason Pawlowski, managing director of the Downtown Neighborhood Association of Elgin.
"It's about strategic, long-term planning, and laying the groundwork for that development long term," he said. "And not rushing to put something together."
The key to redeveloping a downtown riverfront is patience, NIU's Dahlstrom agreed.
"It's a process," he said. "It took years to get to where it is."
Cost is a major obstacle to building on many former industrial sites, because of required pollution remediation, Dahlstrom said.
Also, downtowns typically are divided into smaller parcels owned by a variety of people, which in turn makes consolidation for redevelopment more difficult, he said.
"That's part of the reason a cornfield is attractive for mass development, because you have one owner to deal with," he said.
In order to spur redevelopment, some communities, Elgin among them, created tax increment financing districts. In a TIF district, the assessed value of property is frozen for the purpose of distributing tax money to local units of government. But the increase in taxes created by the improved or redeveloped properties are funneled back into improvements, such as roads and other infrastructure.
Another revenue source — casinos — assisted the Fox River's biggest two towns, Elgin and Aurora, in their redevelopment efforts. Hollywood Casino has provided $238.7 million in tax revenue to Aurora since it opened in 1993; Grand Victoria Casino has brought in $407.2 million for Elgin since 1994.
But good ideas alone don't spur new projects, said Russ Farnum, community development director in Algonquin.
"It's like any other economic development activity — there's a lot of competition out there, and you have to find a niche," he said. "You have to get private development money to go along with your vision."
There also are different schools of thought about what's best along the river, he pointed out.
"If you build a boat split facility, it's not always the most attractive," he said. "Do you want people who bring dollars and boats and buy fuel and food, or do you want to keep it open and pristine? It is always a conflict."
But at least people today find themselves on the same page in recognizing the value of a healthy and bustling Fox River.
"For decades communities turned their backs on the river. That's something that communities are rediscovering," Farnum said.
Paul Schuch, director of water resources for Kane County, said the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 first required local governments to reduce the amount of pollutants entering the Fox River.
"That was the first round of regulations that helped bring about a cleaner Fox River. Fish species that had been moved out of the Fox River began to reappear," he said.
Kane County takes seriously the protection of the Fox River and its tributaries, a topic that has figured prominently in the long-range plans the county has adopted since the mid-1990s, Schuch said.
"The Fox River is Kane County's most precious natural resource, outside of anything else you can think of as a natural resource," he said. McHenry County has taken a similar approach, he added.
Developers who build residential or commercial space along the Fox River have to buy into that, too, he said.
"The more we can get development to recognize that the Fox River is our greatest asset, the more valuable the improvements they make in regards to water quality and water runoff," he said.
Adds NIU's Dahlstrom: "People always like the water. People enjoy it. It's a natural draw — people like the sound of it even, the rippling water.
"The river is a natural attraction. The problem is, one must be patient, and one must be careful."
• Daily Herald staff writers James Fuller and Susan Sarkauskas contributed to this report.
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