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posted: 4/18/2014 6:01 AM

St. Charles boasts iconic riverfront buildings, beautiful views

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  • St. Charles has had some iconic success along its portion of the Fox River. The Hotel Baker and part of a major downtown development called First Street are the major, non-festival river draws for the business area.

      St. Charles has had some iconic success along its portion of the Fox River. The Hotel Baker and part of a major downtown development called First Street are the major, non-festival river draws for the business area.

 
 

More than a decade ago, a group of residents with a passion for the Fox River joined with St. Charles officials to create a master plan that would transform the city from a place by a river into a place where people flock to enjoy the river.

But today, when residents associated with that plan talk about it, their voices are laced with frustration. Indeed, some of the most fervent advocates of the plan haven't lived to see it come to fruition. But those they left behind aren't giving up just yet.

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St. Charles recognized the Fox River as a key to drawing people to its downtown in 2002 with the creation of the River Corridor Foundation. The group came together and spent a year developing a vision for downtown -- revitalization with an eye toward capitalizing on the way the river flows right past city hall, major parks and bisects the community.

The foundation even put together a fundraising arm to make the vision a reality. Then the economy tanked and some of those dreams went down the river. To date, only a few of the minor aspects of the vision, like the Bob Leonard Memorial River Walk and a canoe launch, have been completed.

There are up to $7 million worth of improvements called for in the document, and that's using 2002 cost estimates. A variety of plazas, pedestrian gathering places along the river, better parking and vastly improved landscaping are all major facets of the vision.

Gardens, boat docks and pedestrian bridges are some of the grander designs called for in the document. And though they exist only on paper after more than 10 years, city organizers haven't let the vision die. As the economy revives, so will hopes of completing the plan, officials said.

"We've never got past the potential stage," said John Rabchuk, a River Corridor Foundation member and local businessman who helped draft a new version of the city's comprehensive plan.

When Rabchuk fishes on the river, he shakes his head, but not in frustration about what he isn't catching.

"The river offers both recreation and economic opportunities that we have not even started to touch," Rabchuk said. "Right now the river is like a long retention pond in the city. It moves, but not much."

Yes, the economy is partially to blame, Rabchuk said. But, the recent mayoral candidate said, it's also about lack of focus.

"It takes leadership and just some vision and getting this prioritized," he said. "In the River Corridor Foundation, we like to think of ourselves as instigators. We don't have the ability or enough funds to just make it happen. It's got to be somebody who is in control to start the ball moving a little bit again. Other towns have figured it out."

Denver, Charlotte and even Yorkville are among the towns that come to mind for Rabchuk when he thinks about communities that have created kayaking and an atmosphere of river recreational opportunities -- actually getting people on and in the water -- and brightened their downtown in the process, Rabchuck said.

"You can get 1,500 to 2,000 people a week in foot traffic just from these people looking for active recreation opportunities," Rabchuk said. "It can happen here if the city government decides it's really a priority."

Mayor Ray Rogina said bringing more people to the city is already a top priority for his fledgling administration.

"As a mayor, you want as many visitors in downtown as you can get," he said. "Those who want to run, bike or walk all along our pathways, they see the river as an attraction. But the river can be a drawing point for retail and residential."

In saying that, Rogina's thoughts are with the downtown First Street development project. The project has long been touted as the potential crown jewel of the downtown area.

But the crown is still missing a few jewels.

Only two of the five phases are complete. A new parking garage and a plaza with a strip of businesses have opened in the completed portions. The empty lot across from it, right on the river itself, sees only foot traffic from geese.

The three, five-story buildings of the third phase, even adjusted to include more residential space than office, still have seen no construction.

Those facts are not lost on Rogina. He said the development team of 1st Street LLC and Inland Real Estate now face a sink or swim deadline on the rest of the project.

"We're still in the middle of the agreement," he said. "We've given them an extension to Aug. 20. But after that it's time to start moving on the development or look and see if there's other alternatives."

Rogina wants St. Charles to be the place people travel to when they want to enjoy river-based activities. Being named a great place for families by Family Circle magazine is wonderful for residential, but being branded as a fun community to enjoy the river is wonderful for business, he said.

"It's got to be a situation where when you think of St. Charles, what do you think of?" Rogina said. "The river has got to be part of that answer. To create a branding idea and have something beyond just an idea is important. There's work to do."

Jennifer Biddle has been doing that work ever since her father, Bob Leonard, died. Leonard was one of the founding members of the River Corridor Foundation. And now there is a walkway on the riverfront that bears his name.

It's been one of the hallmark accomplishments of the foundation's efforts in the last 10 years. The annual fundraiser walk/run that bears Leonard's name is also the major fundraiser for the foundation's projects. This year's 5K run/walk is set for Friday, Aug. 10.

Biddle is the chairwoman for the race. She does it to keep her father's vision for the river alive.

"It could be such a draw," Biddle said. "There have been a lot of things over the years that have taken over and had precedence over the river plan. And all of those have been good, but we still have a project list. At times it seems frustrating."

The workings of the foundation and organizing the run have taken over a large part of her life. It's even eaten into her Realty business and the time she spends actually making money for herself and her family.

But that's just how important the river is to her. When she looks out at the water, she thinks about how much it would mean to her dad to see the river become a focal point in the community he loved.

"I'm about to cry," Biddle said, thinking about that dream being realized. "It would be awesome. And I see progress. But we can't stop yet. It comes down to whether or not you see the river as a gold mine or as a money pit. I see it as a gold mine.

"Look at the businesses, the stores and restaurants in Naperville. They put focus on the river. It is a destination. It's why people are there. Why aren't we welcoming people to our river? It has so much potential, and it is so underutilized."

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