Cary Grove merger talk makes officials nervous

Cary and Fox River Grove, two villages perched on opposite banks of the Fox River in McHenry County, share many things.

There's Cary-Grove High School, the Cary Grove Area Chamber of Commerce, the Cary-Grove Food Pantry, the Cary-Grove Jaycees, the Cary Grove Hockey Club, the Cary-Grove Performing Arts Centre and Cary Grove Youth Baseball and Softball. There are also numerous businesses that use “Cary Grove” in their name.

Now, Cary Elementary District 26 and Fox River Grove Elementary District 3, as well as the Cary Area Public Library and the Fox River Grove Memorial Library, are discussing hiring consultants to study the possibility of consolidation.

With all of this sharing going on already and the prospect for more, why not merge the two villages and give birth to Cary Grove, Illinois?

We decided to ask people around both towns this very hypothetical question to see where it would lead.

It's no icebreaker

Cary was incorporated in 1893 and has about 18,200 residents; Fox River Grove, incorporated in 1919, has about 4,800 residents, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

The two village presidents, Robert Nunamaker in Fox River Grove and Tom Kierna in Cary, weren't very interested in discussing the possibility of a merger, or even which salient issues would have to be looked at first.

“It must be a slow news day!” Nunamaker said, adding the topic has never come up before and is not on his radar.

“I haven't even compared the two towns. I don't know Cary's financial situation, what their tax base is, things like that. I wouldn't know where to start,” he said.

Kierna was even more reticent.

“I'm not going to go there. It's going to cause unnecessary heartburn among elected officials and in both communities,” he said. “It's nothing we're talking about.”

Cary Police Chief Steven Casstevens burst out laughing and then he said he wouldn't comment. Cary Village Administrator Chris Clark also had no comment.

“This would be an issue that the elected officials from the various communities should speak to,” Clark said.

Just one bridge

Former Fox River Grove village President Dan Shea, who served until 1993, said his is the kind of small village where most people know each other. Cary has a different feel, more spread out and with more commercial establishments, he said.

“Fox River Grove was built more as a bedroom community. Although Cary has a lot of people and lot of houses, it has a substantial amount of industrial space,” he added. “Neither has capability of greatly expanding that because of the railroad.”

The main obstacle to the mere idea of consolidation would be that the bridge on Route 14 over the Fox River is the only physical connection between the two communities, Shea said.

“If they got together, it would be very hard to do the servicing,” he said. “To this day, the bridge has been a pinchpoint. An electric line fell across the road a month ago, and it cut off access for three hours.”

Shea said that during his tenure on the board, he floated the idea of annexing property across the river that back then wasn't yet part of Cary.

“I brought it up casually, but board members said, 'No, we don't want to end up with problems,'” he said.

Fox River Grove Police Chief Ron Lukasik, who lives in Cary, agreed to at least theorize about what issues might come up. He was careful not to pronounce himself either in favor or against the idea.

“If something were to happen on one side or the other (of the river) and you have traffic issues on Route 14, that could be problematic,” he said.

And there would be a numerous legal and bureaucratic hurdles to jump, examples being that the towns have separate police pension funds and have two different police unions.

Most important, it's all about the residents, Lukasik said. “The residents in the two municipalities, what do they want? The bottom line is, we are here to serve them.”

So what do the residents of the two towns have to say? In an informal survey, they offered a variety of viewpoints.

Some, like 18-year-old Jusin Scharrer of Fox River Grove, thought it really wouldn't make any difference, since people in both towns already frequent each other's hangouts regularly.

But others like Joe Rathke, 41, of Cary, were more cautious. “What about home values?” he asked.

The financial impact, said former Cary village President Donald Huffer, is precisely what should be the focus of the discussion.

“You could look at it from a historic perspective of two separate villages, or you could look at it from a financial perspective leading forward that could lead to substantially reduced costs,” he said.

Fox River Grove, which has struggled to attract more businesses to its downtown, recently created a second downtown tax increment financing district to try to spur growth.

“From the standpoint of Cary taking on Fox River Grove, if Fox River Grove is not as strong as Cary, it could be a downer for the village of Cary,” Huffer said. “However, the potential good is that it opens up potential expansion for the village of Cary in unincorporated area. That might broaden the tax base.”

Historical precedent

An eye to the economic advantages led to the formation of the city of Colona, Ill., in 1997, with the merger of Green Rock, population 2,600, and Colona, 2,200 people, former Colona Mayor Terry VanKlavern said.

For two municipalities to unite, voters in each must approve, said Larry Frang, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League. Colona is the most recent Illinois merger, Frang said.

At various points in time, the topic came up in Rock Island, Moline and East Moline; Bloomington and Normal; and Champaign and Urbana, he said. And in 1957, the villages of Yorkville and Bristol merged to form the United City of Yorkville.

Colona and Green Rock, separated by Route 74 in northwestern Illinois, shared the same grade school and high school, VanKlavern said. Officials decided that if they merged, they could benefit from a combined tax base and greater financial strength.

“Our plan of action was that it was a greater opportunity for business and development in the community, and it gave us greater bonding powers,” he said. “(The merger) did revitalize business and more came in. Increasing the corporate limits of the city was very advantageous.”

Voters in Green Rock, the more blue collar town, easily approved the measure, but in Colona the referendum passed by just a handful of votes, he said. The two communities operated as boroughs for two years, then an ad hoc committee was formed to draw the boundaries of the new city.

VanKlavern said that for something like that to happen in Cary and Fox River Grove — towns he says he knows nothing about — they would have to go into it as equals.

“If they are two small communities, I think it would be advantageous, just for bonding power alone,” he said. “It can work.”

Merge: Village officials reluctant to discuss idea

Luci Galazka, 62, Fox River Grove: “I think taxes will probably go up. I kind of like it the way it is.”
Marshall Blum, 60, Cary: “It would probably be better for Fox River Grove than for Cary. Cary doesn’t need it.”
Issy Davidovicz, 12, Cary: “I think it’s a pretty cool idea. My sister likes to visit her friends in Fox River Grove.”
Justin Scharrer, 18, Fox River Grove: “It would be just redrawing borders. For an average person, I don’t think it would make a difference.”
Joe Rathke, 41, Cary: “It’s not a good idea. If they merged, I would be worried about property values going down.”
Efren Castillo, 44, Cary: “I think it would be fine. It seems like they have a lot in common already.”
Preston Fox, 17, Fox River Grove: “I’m not really a fan of the idea. Cary is a lot larger community. Here in Fox River Grove you just know everybody.”
Tania Gibson-Tripp, 34, Fox River Grove area: “I’m against it. I like that Fox River Grove has a small village feel.”
Bob Dixon-Kolar, 56, Fox River Grove: “I like the individuality of our smaller town. I lean toward keeping things as they are.”
Allison Seubert, 19, Cary: “It would not matter to me if they merged. I think it would be helpful for the schools.”
Carolyn Zurla, 72, Fox River Grove: “I don’t think it’s a bad idea. Seniors could use services that Fox River Grove doesn’t pay into.”
  The Fox River Grove sign. BRIAN HILL/
  A street banner in Fox River Grove. Christopher Hankins/
  A street banner in Cary. Christopher Hankins/

How they compare


18,271 Population 4,854 30.8% Younger than 18 29.5% 6.8% Older than 65 7.9%

91.9% White 93.6%

8.9% Hispanic/Latino 5.4%

2.4% Asian 2.9%

0.7% Black 0.6%

0.2% Amer. Indiana/Alaska native 0.1%

9.4% Foreign-born 8.1%

49.9% Bachelor's degree or higher 37.9%

90.1% Homeownership rate 83.8%

$278,000 Median home value $274,900

$96,894 Median household income $77,127

0.4672 Village tax rate 0.6598

$509,180,407 Equalized assessed value $118,584,222

Source: 2010 U.S. Census, McHenry County Clerk

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