Fox Valley's top stories of 2016
Political battles in Kane County, a new chairman in McHenry County, construction projects throughout the area and some leadership changes at the municipal level were among the most memorable moments for towns in the Fox Valley in 2016. Here are some of the top stories:
Haeger Potteries closes after 145 years:
Haeger Potteries, a family-operated business for four generations, closed its doors last summer after 145 years because of overseas competition and the economic downturn. After the announcement of its closing this spring, however, people throughout the suburbs and beyond rushed to the East Dundee factory store to purchase the final pieces of Haeger pottery. President Lexy Haeger Estes said the outpouring of support from Haeger fans and collectors was humbling and overwhelming. The building has since been sold to local manufacturer Golden Plastics USA.
Elgin Tower Building redevelopment:
Built in 1929, the Elgin Tower Building suffered a slow deterioration with tenants gradually leaving until the building was condemned in 2014. In late September, after nearly two years of laborious negotiations, was the groundbreaking of a $16.6 million project, led by Capstone Development of St. Louis, to turn the building into rental apartments expected to be ready for opening in May.
Free college credits:
A select group of Community Unit District 300 high school seniors are getting a free full year of college this school year. The district is partnering with Elgin Community College on an Accelerate College program. The first of its kind in the suburbs, the program allows eligible high school seniors the ability to take a full year of college classes toward a two-year associate degree -- completing roughly half the required credits for a 60-hour program -- in arts, science and applied science. Upon graduation from high school, students can choose to complete their associate's program at ECC or transfer those college credits to any Illinois college or university. This prompted state legislators to approve the creation of a statewide pilot program modeled after District 300's program.
South Elgin teen missing:
Kianna Galvin of South Elgin vanished May 6 after telling her younger sister, Miah, she was walking to nearby Jim Hansen Park. Seven months later, her social media accounts have stayed silent, her friends haven't heard from her, and nothing has come from leads and tips -- numerous at first, dwindling as of late -- received by South Elgin police. Her mother, Fiona Galvin, hasn't given up hope that Kianna, who turned 18 in July, will return home safely. Fliers and pink ribbons are still posted throughout town, and loved ones held a vigil last month to remind people of Kianna.
Clash between Kane County officials:
The fallout between Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen and State's Attorney Joe McMahon began when Lauzen condemned McMahon for giving state's attorney's office employees what Lauzen deemed as year-end bonuses. Shortly after, McMahon provided a legal opinion that Lauzen had broken the law and county code by giving no-bid contracts to an outside law firm. Lauzen then expressed no confidence in the legal abilities of McMahon and his employees. McMahon also pointed out Lauzen's "disconcerting" involvement in the awarding of a bid to another law firm that would help the county sell bonds to pay down pension debt. At the end of the year, McMahon sent a letter warning that Lauzen was in violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act for not posting meeting minutes in a timely fashion. Lauzen then attacked McMahon for the bonuses again, calling them payments for loyalty and popularity.
School board president thwarts shooting:
St. Charles School District 303 Board President Steve Spurling and his wife Diane were out for a walk in early May when they saw a bloodied woman running from her home and her husband following behind her. Spurling's wife went to comfort the woman when, according to police, Scott Turyna pulled a gun and fired several shots in her direction. Spurling tackled Turyna, disarmed him and held him until authorities arrived. Turyna, 65, was charged with attempted murder. Spurling was later recognized for his actions, which police said saved two lives.
McMahon named special prosecutor:
In early August, Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon was named a special prosecutor in the case of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who is accused of first-degree murder in the shooting of Laquan McDonald, 17, in October 2014. "We have one goal in this case, and that's to present the truth in court and seek justice," said McMahon, an Elgin resident who also is rumored as a candidate for U.S. Attorney under the new Republican presidential administration. McMahon also has three Kane prosecutors and a prosecutor from Winnebago County on his team.
Locker room access for all:
The state's second-largest school district's move to allow locker room access to a transgender student sparked controversy and upset many parents. As of Sept. 6, Elgin Area School District U-46 has allowed a transgender middle school student use of the locker room corresponding with the student's gender identity at the same time as other students. District practice previously had been to allow transgender students to change in the locker room of their choice when other students weren't present.
A decision on Haines:
Middle school closure and construction became the focus of efforts to address declining enrollment and threats to state funding for St. Charles schools. After more than a year of discussion, the district decided to close Haines Middle School and expand and improve the district's two remaining middle schools. Haines parents made a late, unsuccessful push for a tax increase referendum to delay the closure and expand the improvements.
Franks elected McHenry County Board chairman:
In what was considered a historic race for McHenry County, Democrat Jack Franks claimed a victory in the Nov. 8 election as the first popularly elected county board chairman. The Marengo resident defeated Republican Michael Walkup, a District 3 board member. He has already begun implementing some of his plans to lower the county's property tax levy and restructure county government.
U-46 board member criticized for Facebook post:
Parents, teachers and community members chastised Elgin Area School District U-46 school board member Jeanette Ward over a Facebook post about Black History Month, with some calling for her resignation. The Feb. 1 post by Ward quoted author Jason L. Riley's book "Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed." It was posted on Ward's board member page. She quoted Riley as saying, "Blacks have become their own worst enemy, and liberal leaders do not help matters by blaming self-inflicted wounds on whites or 'society.' The notion that racism is holding back blacks as a group, or that better black outcomes cannot be expected until racism has been vanquished, is a dodge. And encouraging blacks to look to politicians to solve their problems does them a disservice." It created a firestorm of criticism.
Drug treatment center near Campton Hills:
Plans to put a drug treatment facility just outside of Campton Hills failed when the Kane County Zoning Board of Appeals and county board both gave the project failing marks. The Campton Hills village board rejected a nearly identical project and continued to fight the plan in county hearings that proved to be the longest public hearing for a project in the county's history. The investors behind the facility then threatened a $68 million discrimination lawsuit. County board members recently agreed to give the project another look.
Elgin leadership changes:
The city of Elgin this year got a new city manager, Rick Kozal, and a new fire chief, Dave Schmidt, after predecessors Sean Stegall and John Fahy left their posts after seven and six years, respectively. Stegall took a job in North Carolina while Fahy retired and took a job with Elgin Community College. Also, Democrat Cristina Castro was elected in November to represent the 22nd Senate District, a seat held for a decade by Mike Noland, who didn't run for re-election.
Pheasant Run agreement:
The DuPage Airport reached an agreement with nearby Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles in August that will not only keep the majority of the existing resort property open, but also help pave the way for an expansion with retail outlets closer to Main Street.
Fulfilling a dream:
Kelly Schultz of Crystal Lake became the only wheelchair-bound athlete to test for and earn her black belt in karate -- her dream since she was 11 -- in the able-bodied division earlier this year at Focus Martial Arts and Fitness in Lake in the Hills. Schultz, 33, has spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spine that often causes mild to severe physical and intellectual problems.
Higher tax levy for Kane County:
Though every candidate on the Kane County Board/Kane County Forest Preserve District Commission ran on platforms of keeping tax levies frozen as long as possible, levy increases went into place for both taxing bodies at the end of 2016. The rising cost of staff salaries was a factor for both entities, as was the loss of some major revenue streams on the county side with the loss of a federal marshal contract at the county jail.
New leadership in Dundee-area fire entities:
Fire districts in East and West Dundee took a step forward toward a functional consolidation this year by agreeing to share a fire chief. With Chief Steve Schmitendorf, of the East Dundee & Countryside Fire Protection District, retiring, West Dundee Chief Randy Freise will begin overseeing both departments Jan. 1. The Carpentersville Fire Department also hired a new leader this summer after former Chief John Skillman retired. His successor, John-Paul Schilling, created a list of 10 goals and is working to revamp the department.
U.S. 20 interchange done in Elgin:
The reconstruction of the interchange of Route 20 and McLean Boulevard was finally completed this fall, after more than four years of construction work that affected area businesses and residents. The goals of the $44 million-plus project by the Illinois Department of Transportation were to enhance the flow of traffic, improve safety and reduce the potential for accidents.
Queen Noor visits Judson:
Queen Noor of Jordan spoke of the urgency of humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis at Judson University's sixth annual World Leaders Forum. Noor's visit was the Christian liberal arts university's and Elgin's first brush with royalty. The widowed queen is the first leader from the Middle East to speak at Judson's forum. In 2015, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón was the first Latin American former head of state to appear at Judson. The American-born Noor, 64, is the widow of Jordan's King Hussein, who died in 1999. She is an advocate for cross-cultural understanding and conflict prevention, missing people, poverty, climate change and disarmament.
Dundee-Crown student competes on national TV:
Dundee-Crown High School junior Riley Elmore made it to the live playoffs on Season 11 of NBC's "The Voice" before the young jazz singer was eliminated from the competition. Elmore, a 16-year-old West Dundee resident, wowed judges during blind auditions with his Frank Sinatra-style voice and ended up competing on coach Adam Levine's team. His peers, teachers and administrators from Community Unit District 300 hosted a rally in his honor when he returned home this fall.
Judges, attorneys retire in Kane:
The Kane County legal community lost two judges with a combined 46 years of experience on the bench to retirement, along with a highly respected Geneva defense attorney. Judith Brawka, who was the first female chief judge for the 16th Judicial Circuit and served 25 years on the bench, retired last summer. So did Thomas Mueller, an Aurora resident who presided over juvenile court and promoted diversity. Kathleen Colton, a private defense attorney known for her tenacity, knowledge and thoroughness, retired in August.
Wal-Mart opens in Carpentersville:
The highly-anticipated Wal-Mart Supercenter opened at 365 Lake Marian Road in Carpentersville last summer. The company had been planning the move from its former East Dundee location less than two miles away for about four years -- a source of great contention between the two municipalities.
Sheriff's deputies returned to schools:
Kane County Sheriff Don Kramer made a decision to pull school resource officers away from their usual posts at Burlington and Kaneland high schools in favor of putting them back on patrol. Parents, school administrators and county board members fought the move. After winning some staffing and financial concessions from the board, Kramer returned the officers to the schools.
New hospital opens in Huntley:
The $230 million, 360,000-square-foot Centegra Hospital-Huntley opened Aug. 9 off Haligus Road, between Algonquin and Reed roads. It is expected to employ more than 1,000 people, including roughly 200 physicians and 450 associates. It offers 100 medical surgical beds, a full-service emergency department, a women's center with 20 private obstetric rooms, eight intensive care beds, 24-hour pediatric care and a helipad for transporting critical patients. Huntley High School students also began serving as part of a unique school-hospital partnership, which allows them to do extensive job-shadowing of physicians and health care professionals.
Retirement fund investigates pensions:
The Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund launched an investigation into whether McHenry County Board members were expected to work the annual 1,000 hours required to participate in the pension program. The inquiry began after then-state Rep. Jack Franks, who later was elected board chairman, questioned whether several board members enrolled in IMRF were eligible. The county board later voted to be removed from the program altogether, and the investigation was determined to be inconclusive, as program leaders couldn't find enough evidence to prove board members weren't putting enough time into their county positions.
Plans unveiled for Batavia apartments:
Developer Shodeen Inc. unveiled plans for a $40 million apartment-and-commercial complex in downtown Batavia, at Washington and Wilson streets. The city has agreed to give the land to the developer, including the former First Baptist Church, and to pay for construction of a new city-owned parking deck.
Elgin teen tortured by cigarettes:
In late February, Elgin police were called to a residence for a report of a woman being held against her will. They found a 19-year-old who was stripped, beaten and who had her shoulder tattoo repeatedly burned by cigarettes, according to Kane County court records. Three females were arrested in short order, but the accused ringleader of the group and ex-boyfriend of the woman, Luis Palomar of Lake in the Hills, wasn't caught until March 22 in Mexico. Each faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
New Elburn church to be built:
St. Gall Catholic Church in Elburn began construction in the spring of a new facility on the southern edge of town. It is trying to sell the current sanctuary and rectory at Shannon Street and Route 47.
Famous gymnast visits Elgin:
Mary Lou Retton, the first American to win the all-around gold medal in women's gymnastics at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, headlined Judson University's World Leaders Forum Inspirational Series this fall. Her five Olympic medals were the most won by any athlete at the Games.
Electronics for students:
By 2020, all students in Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 will be equipped with a personal computing device. The district began deploying one-to-one electronic devices in the 2016-17 school year for all students entering first through eighth grades, and will be adding a grade of high school in each ensuing year.
New TIF in Geneva:
Geneva also created a new tax-increment financing district for the eastern portion of its downtown, saying buildings in it were at risk of becoming blighted, or were vacant, or were obsolete. Included in the TIF was the vacant Mill Race Inn restaurant. A developer razed most of that building in the fall.
U-46 expands dual language program:
Elgin Area School District U-46 expanded its dual language program to middle schools this school year. Abbott, Ellis, Kimball, Larsen and Tefft middle schools implemented the 80:20 Dual Language Program in seventh grade -- "80:20" refers to the youngest students starting out with 80 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 20 percent in English. The Spanish-language portion is reduced by 10 percentage points each year from kindergarten through third grade until the split reaches 50-50, where it remains through sixth grade.
Alternative school gets new focus:
Elgin Area School District U-46's alternative school this fall changed its focus to provide more individualized care for struggling students. Gifford Street High School, which served high school and middle school students who needed help catching up to graduate with their class, is now the Dream Academy. The school now better accommodates students who are not flourishing in a traditional, comprehensive high school setting using a trauma-informed approach.
• Daily Herald staff writers Elena Ferrarin, James Fuller, Harry Hitzeman, Madhu Krishnamurthy and Susan Sarkauskas contributed to this story.
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- Campton Hills
- East Dundee
- Fox River Grove
- Lake in the Hills
- North Aurora
- Pingree Grove
- Sleepy Hollow
- South Elgin
- St. Charles
- Sugar Grove
- West Dundee
- Kane County
- McHenry County
- Dundee Area Unit District 300
- Elgin Area Unit District 46