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updated: 9/5/2013 9:51 AM

Fox River will no longer be ignored by communities

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  • Walton Island, reconstructed in 2002 as part of Elgin's Riverfront/Center City Master Plan, was among its first efforts to use the Fox River as an economic catalyst. Suburbs along the Fox have been transforming their riverfronts.

      Walton Island, reconstructed in 2002 as part of Elgin's Riverfront/Center City Master Plan, was among its first efforts to use the Fox River as an economic catalyst. Suburbs along the Fox have been transforming their riverfronts.
    Courtesy of city of Elgin

  • The Fox River snakes through downtown Elgin. The city is among Fox River communities working to transform their shorelines.

      The Fox River snakes through downtown Elgin. The city is among Fox River communities working to transform their shorelines.
    Courtesy of city of Elgin

  • Yorkville mayor Pro-Tem Chris Funkhouser says a "micro-economy" has developed in his city after the opening in 2011 of the Marge Cline Whitewater Course, a dam bypass built as a recreational amenity for canoers and kayakers.

       Yorkville mayor Pro-Tem Chris Funkhouser says a "micro-economy" has developed in his city after the opening in 2011 of the Marge Cline Whitewater Course, a dam bypass built as a recreational amenity for canoers and kayakers.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner is one of many Fox River town leaders who want to see increased recreational use along the waterway, hoping canoers and kayakers will bring businesses with them.

       Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner is one of many Fox River town leaders who want to see increased recreational use along the waterway, hoping canoers and kayakers will bring businesses with them.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Aurora-area kayaking

 
 

The Fox River may be any number of things to the communities that sprouted along its banks.

In Aurora, it's home to the new Music Garden at RiverEdge Park and the centerpiece of what some are calling a renaissance in downtown.

In North Aurora, it's the somewhat disconnected back yard of an assortment of low-slung offices, stores, car shops and houses.

In Batavia, it's the unadvertised site of the Riverwalk and bike paths, quite possibly best viewed from a former factory's parking lot.

In Geneva, it's seen as a site for commercial opportunities, but a bit of a walk from the heart of downtown.

In St. Charles, it's a place that inspires grand visions for creative reuse but also sparks frustration about the relative lack of progress.

In Elgin, it's the lifeblood of at least two new businesses and the launchpad for a new entrepreneurial spirit.

In Carpentersville, it's a work in progress, marked by a new bridge, an improved park and roughly 1,200 factory workers, along with empty buildings.

Between East Dundee and West Dundee, it's a site being considered for new parks.

And in Algonquin, it's a destination for boaters and foodies highlighted by two popular open spaces.

But after taking a look at each of these places in a weekly summerlong series "The transformation of Fox River towns," the Daily Herald found one thing's for sure: The river is no longer ignored.

Once a largely forgotten waterway that passed by shuttered factories and shops facing away from the riverfront, the Fox is now at least on the radar screens of officials in almost all the suburbs along its banks.

That's a plus, river enthusiasts say, but it's only a beginning.

"I see progress. But we can't stop yet," said Jennifer Biddle of St. Charles, who is carrying on the work her late father, Bob Leonard, started with the River Corridor Foundation.

"Why aren't we welcoming people to our river?" she said. "It has so much potential, and it is so underutilized."

Towns trying to capitalize on the river by turning it into a recreation hub, a cultural destination, a manicured shopping area or a community point of pride all at least recognize its presence, no matter how far along their dreams, plans or redevelopment efforts are -- or aren't.

While many riverfront communities have an organization dedicated to promoting better use of the Fox -- the North Aurora River District Alliance committee, the River Corridor Foundation of St. Charles -- or a plan spelling out projects to highlight the natural amenity, in several cases a lack of financing or private developer interest has slowed progress.

That's why no town along the 30-plus-mile stretch of water from Algonquin to Aurora is resting on its laurels, or leaving the river untended as the Fox flows south toward the Illinois River in Ottawa.

West Dundee is taking a break after spending more than $3 million during 16 years on a riverwalk and shoreline stabilization projects; officials now are focused on maintenance.

But most of the other communities have some type of river project on their radar -- be it building a plaza, library or pedestrian bridge, or simply removing unsightly brush and invasive undergrowth.

Officials in many communities say they're looking to Yorkville as an example of a town that's grateful for the attention it's garnering for the Marge Cline Whitewater Course, a regional paddlesports destination that opened in 2011.

Leaders there convinced the state to add a recreational element -- an 1,100-foot-long bypass channel requiring no white-water rafting skill to traverse, yet still fun for experienced paddlers -- to dam renovations completed for safety reasons, City Administrator Bart Olson said.

Canoers and kayakers from across the Midwest have come to check it out, spurring reinvestment in places for them to eat, drink and enjoy themselves when they're not on the water. Mayor Pro-Tem Chris Funkhauser calls it a "micro-economy" containing new businesses like a bakery, bistro and pub.

"We've had developers start to buy up property, renovate old buildings ... on the premise that the entire downtown is going to be transforming, with the river being the focal point and the first step," Olson said.

Short on private developer interest, towns farther north are looking to partnerships to help them find grants to invest in ways to better use the Fox.

Algonquin, Carpentersville and officials from the Kane County Forest Preserve District and the McHenry County Conservation District are seeking funds to study how to enhance recreational opportunities along their bends in the river. Canoeing and kayaking groups are entering the discussions, which still center on how to draw people to the nearby downtown areas.

While floodplain regulations limit construction on riverfront properties in Carpentersville, North Aurora, Geneva and elsewhere, commercial and residential developments set a bit farther back still can take advantage of the view.

And sometimes a view is all it takes to spark an idea, even one that can transform an overgrown shoreline or a sleepy downtown or a row of dormant factories into something new -- a riverfront with an identity.

"Even before property gets redeveloped in those river downtowns, just let people see it for what it is. Get them down there any way you can," Yorkville's Olson says.

"People really enjoy the view and everyone is always attracted to water. You've got a natural asset there, if you're on the water, and you should be using it."

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