Two remarkable things happened this summer in Elgin, both drawing on the beauty of the Fox River as a way to attract customers and make business.
One, for the first time in more than 75 years, people again can sit outside and enjoy views of the river while having a meal or a drink on the outdoor patio of a downtown business. Chooch's Pizzeria opened in December and hosted a grand opening for its patio in late May.
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Two, for the first time people can go for a leisurely ride on the river by renting pedal boats from a new business that started in late July.
Chooch's Pizzeria co-owner Mike Butirro and Blue Hippo Pedal Boats owner Justin Hodge said they simply capitalized on what was -- literally -- in front of them.
"The river was just lacking in activity, that's why I thought it would be perfect to bring it here. It's like being outside of Elgin, but in Elgin," Hodge said. "Most people haven't experienced the river like that (in Elgin), me included."
Butirro said he and his brother, Dan Butirro, looked for a suitable building for four years. They made their choice as soon as they found out Riverside Drive, which runs along the river just behind the commercial strip on South Grove Avenue, was going to be rebuilt and open for traffic sometime this fall.
"That's when we said, 'We have to be on the river,'" he said, adding they were told Elgin's last commercial outdoor patio dates back to 1936. "No one else has that view right now."
A concerted effort
For the past 15 or so years, development in downtown Elgin has been marked by a keen desire to treat the Fox River as an asset, rather than something that just happens to run through Elgin, said Jason Pawlowski, who served as managing director of the Downtown Neighborhood Association of Elgin until July.
Elgin faced many of the same challenges as other Illinois river towns that were previously manufacturing hubs, but it was particularly successful in drawing new development to its downtown, Pawlowski said.
Pawlowski pointed to two key events: the $41 million construction in 2002 of The Centre of Elgin, the city's main recreational facility on Symphony Way, a couple of blocks from the river, and the construction of the new Gail Borden Public Library, which moved in 2003 to a new $30 million facility on the banks of the river just north of Kimball Street bridge.
"All that really put a great face on the north part of our downtown area," he said.
Bigger and better amenities also played a role in attracting developers, who built River Park Place townhouses and condos about a block east of the river, and the Fountain Square On the River on South Grove Avenue, which has river views.
A look back
Downtown looked dramatically different as recently as the 1990s, said Tom Armstrong, a resident and city planner until 2009.
"Pretty much everything downtown had its back turned to the river," he said. "The riverfront was forgotten for many years."
There were about four department stores, including Sears, and a bevy of businesses that took advantage of the foot traffic generated by the major retailers, he said. The only building on the water was a two-level parking deck where Riverside Drive is now located, he said.
The department stores, however, left in the 1980s, moving to such places as Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee.
"The famous headline in the paper, so to speak, was 'The last one turn out the lights,'" he said. "Without the draw of those department stores, it became that much more difficult for small retailers to survive in downtown Elgin."
South of downtown, there were the remnants of the Elgin National Watch Company, which closed in 1968, and of Elgin's original auto mall, which left behind empty lots and rundown buildings, Armstrong said.
City officials got to work fairly quickly, creating the South Grove Tax Increment Finance District in 1985, downtown's first tax-increment financing district. In a TIF district, the assessed value of property is frozen for a certain number of years, and the increase in taxes created by development are funneled back into improvements within the TIF district.
The city bought the land south of downtown and prepared it for redevelopment with environmental cleanup work and moving the ComEd substation, Armstrong said.
That paid off when Elgin scored Grand Victoria Casino, which opened in 1994 and has been an economic engine for the city, bringing in $407.2 million.
"The casino was somewhat controversial. There are people who are not fans of gaming, and Elgin has a long history and reputation of being a city of churches," he said. "All those feelings were going back and forth then."
Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain said the casino yielded as much as $2 million per month to the city when he was elected to the city council in 2005.
"We used that for whatever the city felt was needed, except paychecks," he said. "It paid for street improvements, it helped fund the recreation center, it helped fund major projects in the city."
Kaptain, a lifelong resident of Elgin, said he supported the casino's arrival in the 1990s, but has come to believe state relies too much on gambling proceeds.
Another downtown TIF district, the Central Area TIF District, was established in 2002. It includes major entry corridors into downtown Elgin and its surrounding neighborhoods.
"That's what paid for a lot of the improvement in the downtown area, in particular the streetscape improvements going on for a number of years," he said.
A turning point was the city's adoption of the Riverfront/Center City Master Plan in 2000, which, for the first time, recognized that the Fox River and Fox River Trail could be an economic catalyst for downtown development, Armstrong said.
The essence of the plan stated that, as development occurred over time, it should face the river and take advantage of those views, he said.
The city unveiled the plan's first phase with a dedication ceremony of a reconstructed Walton Island in 2002. Festival Park, another key component of the plan, was built for $11.5 million in 2006.
Fun on the river
There's "something magical" about the river that draws people to it, whether to walk or jog alongside it, or just sit and gaze at it, Elgin Parks and Recreation Director Randy Reopelle said.
The park district's mission doesn't include active recreation on the river, but people water ski and wakeboard on the river north of the Gail Borden Library, he said. Also, the Kane County Forest Preserve District operates Voyager's Landing, just north of I-90.
The Fox River Trail, a multiuse bike and walking path that connects communities along the river from Oswego to Algonquin, also could be a way to boost downtown, Armstrong said.
Not unlike other communities with bike trails, Elgin does a poor job of letting trail users know what lies just a few blocks away, he said.
Bike traffic is expected to pick up significantly when Riverside Drive is completed in the fall. Right now, many cyclists turn around on the trail rather than bike through downtown Elgin.
"It's something we might want to take a look at, to kind of brand the trail system a little more, come up with a system of signs that points people to restaurants, bars, grocery or conveniences stores."
A source of water
There is another vital aspect to the Fox River in Elgin.
Elgin draws its drinking water from the river, said Kyla Jacobson, Elgin's water director, joining Aurora as the only towns to do so,
The $24 million water treatment plant built starting in 1979 just south of I-90 was controversial, she said. Before that, Elgin drew its water from 13 deep wells, 10 of which are still used as backup when needed.
"People didn't like the idea they were going to be drinking river water. But the water was actually pretty clean, even back in the 1970s," Jacobsen said.
It was imperative to maximize use of river water, and minimize impact on underground aquifers, which are finite, Jacobsen said.
"Everybody was using ground water, and the water table was dropping significantly," Jacobsen said. "There are a lot of communities around here that don't have those capabilities and they are going to be facing severe water shortages down the road."
The city expanded the plant in 2000, another $24 million expense; it also has a smaller water treatment plant near Presence St. Joseph Hospital.
People should understand the importance of being good stewards of the river, which is on the state's list of impaired waterways for the dangers to its aquatic life, she said.
There's too much phosphorous and nitrogen in the water, which causes algae growth damaging to fish, she explained. That can also lead to the water having a distinct taste and odor, which nonetheless does not affect the drinkability of the water, she added.
"People don't realize how important the Fox River is to Elgin," she said. "It's important not to pollute it. It's important not to randomly dump stuff into storm drains, because we use that water."
After Riverside Drive is completed in the fall, the city will look into finalizing funding for amenities like canopies and landscaping for the promenade, said City Engineer Joe Evers.
"The hope is that more buildings that butt up to Riverside Avenue will open up their backsides" and take advantage of the river views, Evers said.
Armstrong said he believes there's a new entrepreneurial spirit in downtown Elgin, much of it fostered by the river as an asset.
"We have some new businesses, I think many more than people realize," he said. "We have a pretty vibrant restaurant and entertainment scene downtown now.
"Every time I talk to people who have come to Elgin from out of town, they are so impressed with the improvements downtown, and how downtown is looking compared to how it used to be."