The city of Elgin is planning to rename its water treatment plant after Leo Nelson, the former city manager who led the charge for the enormously controversial project in the 1970s.
Nelson, 78, was city manager from 1972 to 1984. He lived in Elgin for 40 years before moving to Geneva last year.
People were skeptical, if not downright opposed, to drinking what they thought was dirty water from the Fox River, Nelson said.
But the well water that Elgin had been relying on wasn't any less dirty and required just as much treatment as river water to be drinkable, Nelson said.
"I came from towns that used river water, so it was normal to me," said Nelson, a native of Chicago's South Side who worked in Ohio and Michigan before coming to Elgin. "It was controversial, but it shouldn't have been."
The city council's committee of the whole voted last week to name the plant, located off River Road just south of Interstate 90. Councilman Terry Gavin cast the only dissenting vote, saying former Councilman Bob Gilliam, who served for 40 years until April, should get the honor because he was instrumental in getting the plant approved by the city council.
The Elgin City Council cast a close 4-3 vote to authorize hiring an engineering firm for the $24 million water treatment plant project in 1976, Nelson said. The plant opened in 1982 and was expanded in 2000.
Gilliam, who voted in favor of the project, said the council chose the right person to rename the plant after. "That was Leo's idea, not mine," Gilliam said. "The person who had the foresight to do that should get the honor."
Persuading the city council took a lot of research, as did performing independent testing on water from the Fox River, Nelson said.
"I wouldn't say it was a stressful time. It was just unnecessarily controversial," he said.
Being able to draw on the Fox River for drinking water makes Elgin much more independent, Councilwoman Tish Powell said.
"This separates us from our neighbors that depend on Chicago (for Lake Michigan water)," she said. "(Nelson) had the vision to see down the road, to see where Elgin (was) and where it needed to be."
Elgin Mayor David Kaptain agreed. "Leo Nelson helped guide the ship," he said. "The politicians at that time made that decision, but the guidance came from staff."
After ending his tenure as city manager, Nelson worked as human resources manager for Hoffer Plastics until 2000. He was president of the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce from 2000 to 2011.
He now serves on several boards, including the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and Presence St. Joseph Hospital.
"I don't golf, I don't fish, I don't boat," Nelson said. "I just do community work."