You can't talk about the Fox River in Carpentersville without mentioning Tom Roeser, president and chief executive officer of Otto Engineering, the biggest employer in town.
Roeser's move to spend millions renovating and beautifying his company headquarters, which hugs the banks of the Fox River, was the inspiration behind Carpentersville's recent move to beautify other parts of the river.
"It's fair to say it's been the catalyst," Assistant Village Manager Joe Wade said of Roeser's work.
It's also fair to say Carpentersville's efforts remain a work in progress. Most notably, the village has completed a $3.2 million renovation of the Main Street Bridge, the gateway to the village. A new park, completed last year, features a canoe launch, a gazebo and federally protected wetlands and native plants. Other projects are pending and officials acknowledge there are some eyesores that need to be fixed or erased.
The Roeser effect
The area near Otto Engineering was once an industrial hub, which in the 1880s through the first part of the 20th century used the Fox River to power Star Manufacturing, the Illinois Iron and Bolt Company, the Woolen Mills and the Atlantic Flour Mill, now Main Street Bicycles, according to "The Historic Business District of Carpentersville" by Phil Aleo.
You could also find ice houses on the river people used to cut ice for refrigeration, Aleo said. And the river was a popular spot for clam fishing, Aleo said.
By the 1960s, the old factory buildings along Main Street on the banks of the Fox River were dilapidated and in dire need of repair, fresh paint and landscaping. Overgrown railroad tracks were everywhere and the site was run down with overgrown weeds, abandoned property and a swamp.
"It was a slum," Roeser said. "There were bats coming out of the buildings. There was roof trim falling off. The grounds were a garbage dump."
Roeser's resurrection of the area started after Otto Engineering moved its corporate office from Morton Grove into an abandoned liquor store on 36 E. Main St. that his father, Otto founder Jack Roeser, bought in 1968. The store was fully stocked with alcohol at the time of the purchase, Tom Roeser said.
"People were afraid to stop, that's how bad this area was," Tom Roeser said. "Even the alcoholics were afraid to stop and buy liquor."
In 1978, the Roesers bought the building at 2 E. Main St. and started fixing that up. In 1999, the Roesers built an addition and used an older building's bricks to make sure the addition was consistent with the other buildings that are more than 100 years old.
"I've done things that are more for appearance in the neighborhood than function for me," Roeser said.
In 2005, the Roesers bought the building at 10 W. Main Street and renovated that as well. An abandoned hydroelectric powerhouse dating back to 1909 on the property was among the Roesers' holdings and they renovated that and turned it into a clubhouse they use for Friday evening parties and private events.
That same year, Roeser bought and knocked down 13 dilapidated houses, replacing them with six-acre parks on each side of the river north of Otto and a parklike setting at Lincoln Avenue and Main Street.
"My employees should work in a clean nice environment, inside and out," Roeser said. "And I think it's terrific that it's a clean environment for them and for the neighbors."
The rest of his beautifying efforts included landscaping the area into a park for motorists to see when they drive down the hill on Main Street.
"I'm very happy I've been able to clean up around me and it's helped everybody," Roeser said.
Bit by bit
Carpentersville's portion of the Fox River, which flows through its Old Town section, remains an ongoing project, so officials say it's too soon to measure the impact of what they're doing.
The village's largest project to date involved the reconstruction of the Main Street Bridge, which crosses the Fox River. Its share of the $3.2 million project was $750,000, Wade said. Coupled with Roeser's improvements, the new bridge, completed in 2008, has helped revitalize the main gateway into Old Town.
During the course of the bridge's reconstruction, workers made an interesting discovery -- the original 1918 bricks that originally lined Main Street. They used those on a walking path for the new Tim "Mackers" McNamee Park. The park, completed last year, also features a canoe launch, a gazebo built with volunteer labor, a federally protected wetlands and native plants to help stop erosion.
The park honors Tim "Mackers" McNamee, who was gunned down in the driveway of his Carpentersville law firm in 1987. McNamee and his twin brother, Thom, were local entrepreneurs who opened Bandito Barney's Beach Club in East Dundee along North River Street. Thom McNamee, who donated land for his brother's park along the Fox River, died in 2009 of a brain tumor. McNamee's estate contributed $15,000 to the project, while the village earmarked $20,000.
As for Carpenter Park, the village spent $200,000 on a new parking lot that's twice as large as the one it replaced.
The new parking lot was in preparation for $800,000 worth of improvements the village hopes to make in Carpenter Park and approved earlier this year as part of a five-year master plan. Carpenter Park, originally a nine-hole golf course, is the largest park in the village and the most widely used.
The improvements include increasing its accessibility and ease of use for all people, restoring and enhancing its natural areas, improving the existing ballfield, renovating and relocating the basketball courts and playground, highlighting Veterans Garden, connecting it to the bike trail and installing a multiuse path with connections to current and future paths.
Officials are waiting to hear back on a matching grant they applied for through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources that would pay for half of those improvements.
"We won't know about that until next year," Wade said. "We'll have our fingers crossed on that."
Most recently, officials from Carpentersville, Algonquin, the Forest Preserve District of Kane County and the McHenry County Conservation District submitted an application for inclusion in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's Local Technical Assistance Program. The program involves participation in a study to identify how to enhance recreational opportunities along the Fox River.
Today, the river is also home to an industrial employment center of factories and plants that officials estimate employ between 1,000 and 1,200 workers. But there are several empty buildings on the banks, too.
In the future, Carpentersville would love to make drainage improvements to the area, which lies in a flood plain, to make way for townhouses and businesses. If Ritter had his way, it would start by partnering with Roeser to knock down a pair of abandoned Quonset huts on the street.
"It's probably one of the things we want to get rid of most," Ritter said.
Officials would also love to connect the eastern part of the Fox River Bike Trail to the west side of the river and from there also link it to Keith Andres Park, Fox River Shores, Raceway Woods, the Brunner Family Forest Preserve, the Carpentersville dam and the Buffalo Park Camp Ground near Algonquin.
"It's a goal right now, we're working with the county forest preserve to see how that can be all accomplished," Ritter said. "Before you look for money, you've got to look for partners."
An old railroad bridge over the river just north of the Main Street Bridge collapsed earlier this year and Ritter would like to fix it up and use it as another river crossing, if it's safe to do so. Officials also mentioned plans to work with ComEd to make its substation on Washington Street less ugly.
"We're a work in progress, but we've made a lot of progress and things are in place to make this a really nice spot," Ritter said.