The Transformation of Fox River Towns

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Transformation of Fox River Towns


Byline: Elena Ferrarin eferrarin@dailyherald.com By Elena Ferrarin eferrarin@dailyherald.com

Most suburbs are a product of urban growth that spread from Chicago, but the history of towns along the Fox River is much different.

Municipalities such as Aurora and Elgin were born not as suburbs but as independent towns that boomed in the late 1800s from an influx of workers for the local industries that sprouted along the railways that flanked the river.

But in the 20th century, unlike such suburbs as Arlington Heights, Naperville, Schaumburg and Wheaton that flourished as a result of the rails and roads that brought their populations, Fox River towns faced a challenge. Many of their industries closed or relocated, leaving communities to grapple with the remnants of industrial development while trying to newly capitalize on the Fox River as an asset.

"When I first came to the Fox River valley in the late 1980s, I drove along the Fox River through all the communities. My first impression was that there were a lot of communities that turned their backs on the river," said Roger Dahlstrom, senior research associate with the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University.

"That has changed radically. Communities all along the river have rediscovered it as a natural attraction."

Efforts to showcase the river and the communities' downtown areas along it have not come easy. Some local leaders say recent tough economic times put a damper on redevelopment. But consider some of the recent efforts:

* Last month, Aurora unveiled its $18.5 million RiverEdge Park, a 10-acre site fronting the Fox with a Music Garden -- an amphitheater-style music venue that accommodates 8,500 with preferred bench and lawn seating. The park also offers a bike path and boat launch, and provides immediate access to Metra trains and Pace buses. Aurora's annual Blues on the Fox fest debuted the new park and featured Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. Eventually, city leaders hope to build a pedestrian bridge spanning the river to allow greater access to the park.

* Elgin's Gail Borden Public Library and Festival Park boast eye-catching views of the Fox River. Some residential development along or near the river is completed, but the total plan is still in the works. The long-awaited rebuilding of Riverside Drive, which runs along the riverbank, is expected to be completed sometime this fall. City leaders hope that will encourage an influx of new business.

* Algonquin has developed two parks along the river. Now, officials want to try to foster recreation opportunities such as kayaking and paddle boating on the river, both prominent components of a new downtown plan adopted in April.

* Geneva adopted a downtown master plan last year that calls for redeveloping the former site of the iconic Mill Race Inn restaurant, which fronts the river, with a building housing residences, stores and restaurants.

* Batavia is working on how to turn the shoreline into more of an attraction. The town already boasts Depot Pond, the Riverwalk and Clark Island Park, but it is grappling with the fact that much of the riverfront abuts the backside of businesses.

* St. Charles recognized the Fox River as a key to drawing people to its downtown, os in 2002 it created its River Corridor Foundation. The recession, however, slowed down those plans, and to date, only a few of the minor aspects of the vision, like the Bob Leonard Walkway and a canoe launch, have been completed. Nonetheless, the city's downtown, particularly its night life, can be described only as bustling.

Those redevelopment efforts are important because when the river becomes a part of people's daily lives, they're more apt to appreciate its value, said Gary Swick, president of Friends of the Fox River.

"Most municipalities are experiencing some kind of renewal or honoring of the river as an important resource," Swick said. …

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