Dale Berman enjoyed Independence Day along the Fox River.
But not in North Aurora, of which he is president.
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About this seriesToday's report on North Aurora continues our series of weekly stories in Neighbor that profiles communities that grew up along the Fox River -- and the challenges they have faced and overcome -- including Aurora, North Aurora, Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles, Elgin and Algonquin.
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Berman spent the evening at the new RiverEdge Park in Aurora.
"It's really something," said Berman, also chairman of the Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
North Aurora, much smaller than Aurora, can't compete with the money poured into creating RiverEdge. But like in towns to the north and south, officials dream of leveraging its proximity to the Fox River to improve the town's economy and society.
It's not that North Aurora has a vacant downtown. But it's not the kind of place people take strolls, stopping for an iced coffee or to browse a shop.
An aging former school sits on its northern end, serving as a community center. Across the street is a large, nondescript liquor store. There's a patchwork of low-slung offices, stores, an A&W, a used-car dealer, automobile shops and houses running down to I-88.
The new police station sits across from a fenced lot where an off-track betting parlor used to be. There are a couple of bars, Harner's Bakery and Restaurant, dance and martial arts studios, a fire station and the village hall. Village officials want desperately to bury the overhead power lines along Route 31 to get rid of the view of the wooden poles.
And much of it doesn't really tie in to the Fox River, which runs just east of Route 31, behind many of the businesses.
What could be
Once upon a time, North Aurora had a $25.25 million dream for its downtown and riverfront. That came out of a feasibility study commissioned in 2006 and presented to the village board in 2008.
"This initiative has the power to transform the identity of the village like no other project the village will ever undertake," the report stated.
And officials are keen on transforming the identity.
That 2008 plan envisioned changing things during a 20-year span.
First, it called for improving the riverside trails and parks with wider paths, new playgrounds, gardens, outlooks, more parking and better landscape management, which would include reining in the invasive plants and poison ivy along the trail.
It suggested the dam north of the State Street bridge could be showcased as a focal point.
And it proposed a Grand Boardwalk Isle.
"It was very ambitious," said Trustee Chris Faber, who was on the plan commission at the time and served on the committee that worked with the consultant. "It was probably a little too ambitious."
Faber is now on the North Aurora River District Alliance committee, which is committed to increasing use of the riverfront. It is cherry-picking ideas out of the plan, he said.
It took the suggestion for a water sprayground, for example, and turned it into the Water Wonders interactive stream, a more ecologically conscious feature. It organizes concerts in Riverfront Park, and other festivities in Island Park. It is talking about making a sculpture garden in Riverfront Park.
The Fox Valley Park District, which owns Island Park and some of Riverfront Park, followed through on some ideas, including putting restrooms at Island Park and installing a new playground and picnic shelter there. A gazebo and a scenic overlook have been added in Riverfront Park. And there are installations of items from the mill referred to in the town's original name of Schneider's Mill.
Riverfront work is limited by geography, vegetation and money.
Riverfront Park is in a floodplain, so you can't even install a paved brick walk, Faber said, and anything built there has to be able to withstand floodwater.
Even the village hall has taken on water from one of the river's channels. The village was mucking out its basement just this past April.
Views of the river from the Fox River Trail, or from the back lots of businesses, are limited by thick, mostly nonnative vegetation such as buckthorn. More fishermen started showing up at the spillway when brush was cleared away, Faber said. Some more of that might be taken care of this summer, with the park district's permission, by teen workers the village is hiring with a state grant for conservation work.
There's a river here?
Awareness of the riverfront is another issue. Maybe people knew about it in the old days when they would come out from Chicago to visit Exposition Park on the Lincoln Highway (Route 31), or when taking the Chicago Aurora and Elgin electric railway until its demise in the 1930s.
"I hear from people, 'We have this incredible thing we know we have to take advantage of. We didn't really realize how nice it is down here,'" Faber said.
Many think the area near Orchard and Randall roads is the heart of the village, with its supermarkets, auto dealers and shopping centers.
He acknowledged businesses such as a doctor's office or the auto parts store probably won't directly benefit from proximity to the river. But the restaurants and the bicycle shop certainly would.
Personally, Faber, a kayaker, would like to see the 40-year-old dam remodeled like the state did with the Glen Palmer dam in Yorkville starting in 2006. The state installed a fish ladder to enable fish to go upstream. And it put in a canoe and kayak chute, the Marge Kline Whitewater Course.
"Every dam should be done that way," he said. Yorkville's chute is turning into a tourist attraction. "They've got to eat someplace, they've got to buy gear someplace," Faber said.
A different greenery
And then there is money.
"In 2008, everything fell apart," Faber said, referring to the recession's effect on private real estate development and village finances.
Much of the downtown is in tax-increment financing districts, however, money from which could be earmarked for some improvements. The feasibility study also suggested selling the community center, and pointed out other income sources, such as a special sales tax, utility taxes or raising property taxes.
"It would take somebody throwing some investment money at it" to fully realize the riverfront plan, Faber said. "We need some money."