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Elgin-Back to the Future

When people think of the city of Elgin their thoughts typically tend to drift backward to its storied past: Memories of workers flocking in and out of the Elgin National Watch Factory, shopping at legendary retailers like Ackemann’s, Spiess or Woolworth’s, dining at the Tower Grill or enjoying a malt with family at the counter in Burn’s Pharmacy. These are all memories deeply woven into the fabric of Elgin’s rich history.

As those memories become more and more distant through the passage of time, however, people are now viewing the “City in the Suburbs” in an entirely new light. Thanks to the thoughtful vision set by city leaders coupled with strategic planning by City of Elgin staff and innovative partnerships developed by the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce and the Elgin Development Group, Elgin is now a hub for technology and a thriving workforce, a destination for commercial and residential development, a magnet for businesses large and small, and home to myriad arts, cultural, special events and quality-of-life amenities unlike any other community.

“Elgin Sweeper Company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014. We are extremely proud to have been a member of the Elgin community for all 100 of those years. The City of Elgin has proven to be an ideal location for our worldwide manufacturing headquarters. It provides our employees with an outstanding living and working environment, being part of a community, but also being so close to Chicago, the airports, and all the area has to offer,” said Mike Higgins, Vice President/General Manager of Elgin Sweeper Company and Vice President of Elgin/Vactor Sales – North American Dealer Channel.

“Our customers from all over the world regularly visit our facility due to its easy access to and from O’Hare, as well as the attractiveness of a major metropolitan area,” Higgins noted. “Our ability to recruit and retain the very best people is no doubt due in large part to our location in Elgin, Illinois.”

A primary factor to Elgin’s growth explosion is its accessibility. Situated only 35 miles northwest of Chicago with easy access to public transportation, O’Hare International Airport and the I-90 tollway, visitors and workers can easily access Elgin anytime by plane, by train and by automobile.

“Elgin is unique in that it offers relocating corporations a diversified, talented labor pool, as well as a wide variety of Class A, functional facility options which are close to transportation hubs like several different I-90 interchanges and O’Hare International Airport. But in many cases, those facilities also happen to be in Kane County which levies much lower property taxes on its businesses than other area counties do,” explained John Cassidy, principal of Lee & Associates of Illinois, LLC, a commercial real estate services firm.

“This gives Elgin a distinct advantage over its competitors – the ability to offer top-notch, easy-to-access facilities that are not burdened by heavy taxation in a community with a diverse pool of individuals who are ready, willing and able to work in a variety of workplaces, including manufacturing,” he added.

According to October 2015 data from Dun and Bradstreet, Elgin is home to nearly 5,700 businesses with the majority classified as small businesses. Since its founding in 1834, the city of Elgin has always been built upon the family-owned business. Several small businesses like Shales McNutt Construction, Ziegler’s Ace Hardware, Lamp Incorporated, and others have enjoyed decades of service to the Elgin community. Now as time marches on, the founding fathers or grandfathers of these businesses are beginning to pass the baton of leadership to their children and grandchildren. We will profile a few of these small business stories; chronicle their legacy and how these changes in leadership that lay ahead will impact the community in this publication.

Another secret to Elgin’s success is its commitment to public safety and community inclusivity. The city of Elgin was recently highlighted in two national reports, naming the “City in the Suburbs” both one of the safest and one of the most diverse cities in America. Elgin was the only Illinois city to rank in the top 100 on both lists.

Elgin ranked 27 (tying with Joliet) on the 2015 Most Diverse Cities in America list compiled by WalletHub. Other Illinois cities in the top 100 included Aurora at 24 and Chicago at 32. Elgin was also one of only two Illinois cities listed on Niche’s Safest Cities in America list, ranking 31. Both reports compared Elgin to all other American cities with populations greater than 100,000.

“These two studies, along with the study earlier this year that ranked Elgin as the third best city in Illinois for young families, continues to reinforce what we already know,” said Sean Stegall, Elgin city manager. “Elgin is a welcoming, inclusive community whose diversity helps to create safe, vibrant and connected neighborhoods throughout the city.”

Although pleased with the safe city recognition, Elgin Police Chief Jeff Swoboda said there is still more that can be done. “Reports like this illustrate what can be accomplished when the community gets involved with its police department. While I am proud of what we have accomplished so far, we must continue to develop that partnership so we can further increase safety in Elgin.”

Recently the city of Elgin was awarded $250,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice through the Body Worn-Camera Pilot Implementation Program to purchase body-worn cameras for Elgin Police Department officers.

“Our police department regularly shows its dedication to building community trust and promoting transparency through a number of policing strategies. This will serve as another critical tool in our police department’s comprehensive problem-solving strategy to enhance officer interactions with the public,” said Elgin Mayor David Kaptain.

Not to be outdone, the Elgin Fire Department has also given residents another reason to be proud of their city with the department’s recent high ranking in its ability to protect the community. The Elgin Fire Department achieved an Insurance Service Office (ISO) Community Public Protection Classification 2 rating, which places the department in the top two percent of communities nationwide.

“Insurance companies use the ISO classifications to establish premiums for both commercial and residential property policies, with a better rating resulting in a lower insurance rate and cost of insurance,” Elgin Fire Chief John Fahy explained. “Achievement of this improved rating is a tremendous benefit to renters, businesses and property owners.”

However, the real strength of any community can truly be measured by the quality of life amenities it affords its residents and visitors. As the “City in the Suburbs,” Elgin enjoys the unique position of being able to offer its populace of over 110,000 people big city, urban amenities in a sprawling, suburban setting that encompasses portions of both Kane and Cook counties.

Elgin’s Parks and Recreation department boasts over 70 parks and 10 recreational facilities offering recreational activities for all ages. Program opportunities include everything from swimming, golf, and fitness to ceramics, dance, and yoga. This past year the city invested in several upgrades to two of its premiere fitness facilities, The Centre of Elgin and the East Side Recreation Center.

In September and October 2015, Elgin conducted its landmark 100th Annual Elgin Open. The centennial edition of this event was contested at all three of Elgin’s renowned public golf courses: The Highlands, Bowes Creek Country Club and historic Wing Park, the oldest 9-hole municipal course in the state.

The city also offers two first-class museums. The Elgin History Museum makes its home in historic Old Main, one of Elgin’s oldest standing structures, and provides guests a glimpse into the city’s past. While Elgin Public Museum, located in picturesque Lords Park and a mere lion’s roar from Lords Park Zoo, offers a variety of educational programming and interactive exhibits.

Elgin has evolved into a destination for health care in Kane County and far northwestern Cook County, with two top-notch, state-of-the-art local hospitals right in our own backyard. Advocate Sherman Hospital and Presence Saint Joseph Hospital both have a long and celebrated history of providing award-winning health care and wellness services to Elgin residents for more than a century and both hospitals are poised to continue that same quality of care for years to come.

Education is another hallmark of Elgin’s dedication to quality of life for its residents. In addition to the award-winning Gail Borden Public Library as well as the wide range of post-secondary educational opportunities with Elgin Community College and Judson University, this past year an educational initiative was put forth by the City of Elgin, local school districts and the business community at large. The new Alignment Collaborative for Education’s (ACE) mission is to align community resources and collaborate with organizations in support of public school strategies to raise student achievement; create responsible, productive, and contributing members of our society; and advance the economic and social well-being of communities served by Elgin Area School District U-46 in Illinois.

ACE envisions all students starting kindergarten prepared to learn, reading at grade level by third grade, graduating from high school with marketable employment skills and/or enrolling in post- secondary education.

In many communities, the arts are a game-changing economic development driver and Elgin’s commitment to the arts is unparalleled. Recently a 13-member advisory task force that has been studying the Hemmens Cultural Center recommended the city upgrade the facility’s features, fix up the adjoining Civic Center Plaza and build a new, attached multipurpose event space. The proposed new space, attached to the southeast side of the building, would accommodate up to 450 patrons and include new restrooms, dressing rooms, a box office, and more. A cost analysis and a formal proposal to the City Council are pending.

On the heels of another successful season of summer concerts in Festival Park that included performances by Boston, Huey Lewis and the News, as well as a July 4 fireworks extravaganza on the Fox River, the Grand Victoria Casino is also exploring the feasibility of building an outdoor concert pavilion in the park to enhance the concert experience. GVC’s 2016 Summer Concert series slate should be announced in early 2016.

Where else can you enjoy performances from Illinois’ second largest symphony orchestra? Now in its 65th season, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of acclaimed conductor Maestro Andrew Grams brings world-class classical and pop music performances to the Hemmens Cultural Center from October through May while attracting audiences from around the state.

In addition to the Hemmens, the Elgin Art Showcase, on the 8th floor in the historic Professional Building at 164 Division St., hosts niche performances by local dance and theatre groups throughout the calendar year coordinated by Elgin’s Cultural Arts Commission.

The arts revival in Elgin is not solely limited to performing arts. The city’s two-day Art & Soul on the Fox event is an annual celebration of a variety of visual and performing arts taking place in the streets of downtown Elgin the first weekend in August.

Additionally over the last two years, local grassroots arts groups have organized the Elgin Fringe Festival, a four-day arts festival with performances and exhibits conducted inside local businesses, drawing thousands of visitors into the city’s Central Business District.

The annual slate of city-sponsored special events include the Elgin Valley Fox Trot, 4th of July Parade, Free Movies in Festival Park, Free Concerts in Wing Park, National Night Out Citywide Block Party, the aforementioned Art & Soul on the Fox, Elgin International Festival, the annual tree lighting and ice skating at City Hall, and the city’s signature Halloween street festival, Nightmare on Chicago Street, attracting more than 13,000 visitors to the Zombie safe zone in 2015.

Speaking of visitors, Elgin hosted a delegation this past summer from the Illinois Office of Tourism at a press event at the Elgin Artspace Lofts. According to data provided by IOT officials, visitors spent 453.6 million in Kane County in 2014, an increase of 4.2 percent. These visitor expenditures directly supported 4,090 jobs and generated 9.45 million in local tax revenues.

“Tourism is an important and critical economic driver of new revenues to the Elgin Area. When visitors come to the area and bike, hike the trails of the Fox River Bike Trail, or play at a soccer or softball tournament at the Elgin Sports Complex, they stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores and fill up their gas tanks. All while driving revenues to our communities and providing tangible quality-of-life benefits and job opportunities for people here in the Elgin Area,” said Kimberly Bless, President/CEO of the Elgin Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Whether you’re looking to open a business, buy a home, raise a family or just take in a show and grab a bite to eat, there’s no time like the present to experience all that Elgin has to offer.

You don’t need a time-traveling DeLorean to enjoy Elgin’s golden age either. That time is now.

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