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Elburn grows up

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Photo:The Shodeen master planned community known as Elburn Station will contain over 110 acres of parks and green open space with miles of recreational paths, connecting the potential 200,000 square feet of commercial buildings on the north to the established residential neighbors of Elburn, and Blackberry Creek on the south to where Elburn’s heritage stems from: its downtown. Elburn Station will expand the village’s easterly border while providing a vehicular overpass to allow police, fire and emergency vehicles to circumvent freight and commuter trains traveling through the Elburn community.

Officials, residents examine village’s current state

The Elburn Herald’s three-part series detailing the
evolution of Elburn continues this week with a look at the
village’s current state.

When Elburn Village President Dave Anderson stops to think about the changes he’s seen during his 61 years in the village, it astonishes him.

“Nothing came suddenly until you look back on it, and then you think, ‘Wow,’” he said.

The village’s population has doubled since 2000, when it had just under 2,800 residents, to more than 5,700 today. That growth has transformed Elburn from the small farming community of Anderson’s youth, where everybody knew everybody, to the western edge of suburbia—and it’s set to start booming again.

Today’s Elburn is a town in transition, but it’s hard to pin down a single moment or person that started the transformation, Anderson said. Instead, it’s been a series of developments.

There was the building of the Blackberry Creek subdivision, which B&B Enterprises started developing in 2004. It was part of a regional “nuttiness about farmland,” Village Trustee Bill Grabarek said, that was driven by the housing boom.

“You had development in Lily Lake, Sugar Grove was starting to explode, Batavia and St. Charles were going crazy,” Grabarek said. “There was this big building boom from the early ‘90s all the way up to the crash in 2008. It was just nuttiness about farmland. What was at one time $300 to $400 an acre (went) up to $30,000 or $40,000 per acre, with no improvements. So everybody was just going crazy. Developers would snap up farmland and then bring in a concept plan to the village.”

Blackberry Creek was the biggest development to break ground in Elburn. More than a thousand new homes were built, bringing scores of new residents and sparking the construction of Kaneland Blackberry Creek Elementary School.

There was the extension of the Union Pacific West Line to Elburn in 2006, which brought commuter service to Chicago to the village, as well as a coach yard to store trains at the end of the line.

Quantifying the impact of the train station is hard, Anderson said, but he thinks it’s driving further development and attracting more residents who suddenly see Elburn as a nice place to live that’s also in commuting distance of Chicago.

There was the opening of the Jewel in 2007, which drove The Grocery Store, the last of Elburn’s three independent small grocery stores, out of business.

“The Jewel-Osco was a big impact,” said Anderson, who owned The Grocery Store. “Now you had a major grocery chain that opened up close to the same time as the McDonald’s, and that whole area up there (at the corner of Route 38 and Route 47) developed, one after another.”

The pace of change has slowed since the 2008 recession, but it’s picking up again.

Construction has begun on the Anderson Road Bridge, which will provide an alternate for traffic on Route 47 and increase the Metra station’s accessibility. Its completion was a prerequisite for Shodeen’s Elburn Station development, which will build another 2,215 housing units to Elburn over the next 20 years. Anderson estimates that when Elburn Station is complete, the village will have 11,000 residents.

With that growth has come development and, some worry, a shift away from a friendly small-town culture to a more anonymous suburban one. That’s why Grabarek makes passing policies that promote community and preserve the feel of Elburn one of his priorities on the Village Board.

“With the Anderson Road bridge coming in, with Shodeen, there’s going to be more anonymity,” Grabarek said. “Electric garage door openers and central air have killed much of our forced sociability with our neighbors because we don’t have to talk to them. We can ignore them, and we do. We are losing that sense of community, and we have to design our community to allow those possibilities to still exist and to promote those possibilities.”

Preserving the character of Elburn and promoting community, he said, comes down to many small planning decisions. It’s why Grabarek has used his position on the Planning Commission and the Village Board to require new construction to fit architecturally into the village, requiring the McDonald’s to use a “prairie-style” metal roof, and the commercial area at the southeast corner of Route 38 and Route 47 to have a center street instead of being built like a strip mall.

Figuring out how to promote interactions between residents who may no longer know each other has been trickier, but Grabarek is working on it.

“My thing on the Planning Commission has always been, how do we promote community and interactions between our residents? So that they feel safe to talk to one another and they want to gather in one spot?” he said.

Part of the answer, he said, has been trying to make Elburn’s downtown a gathering place. New businesses like Schmidt’s Towne Tap have been welcome additions, because they offer opportunities for residents to socialize, but the library, the Lions Club, and the forest preserve are all central to creating a sense of community, he said.

“Getting a forest preserve as an amenity, it gives everyone a chance to participate a little more, because you’ll be standing out there in nature,” Grabarek said. “You’ll be kind of naked, and what are you going to do? Not say ‘Hi’? You would do that in downtown Manhattan, but not here. You are trying to change the attitude, to make it safe to wave. I say ‘Hi’ to everyone coming down the street. It makes people feel safe. It makes them feel a part of something. It draws them into the life and the pulse of the community.”

Not everyone is concerned.

Dave Rissman has had a front-row seat for the changes that have transformed Elburn. He opened Dave’s Barbershop in downtown Elburn in 1964, listening to the stories of thousands of residents over the years as they’ve come in for haircuts. And he doesn’t see much difference between the new residents and the old.

“Most of the people who were out here were farm kids and farm-type people, and now most of the people moving here are suburban,” Rissman said. “But I have all the faith in the world that the people now are just as good as the others were.”

Making Elburn a pleasant place to live has been a collective effort on the part of many people over the years, he said, and though he’s disappointed by the number of empty storefronts downtown, it hasn’t affected his business.

“I see a lot of positive things. I guess you could find negative things if you look for them, but you don’t get anywhere in life doing that,” he said. “My only thought on (growth) is that I’m hopeful, like everybody else, that it stays positive. That depends on us as a whole.”

That’s been Father Tim Seigel’s experience as well. Seigel, the priest at St. Gall Catholic Church in Elburn, is a new transplant to the village himself—he moved here from Genoa, Ill., in 2012—and remembers how warmly people welcomed him when he arrived.

“I hear so many people say, ‘Everybody knows everybody.’ And I go down to the Kountry Kettle for breakfast and sit with a bunch of people, and it’s true: everybody knows everybody,” Seigel said. “I’ll always remember the first day I walked in (to the Kountry Kettle); the tables were really full of people, and I didn’t know what to do. I could go sit by myself, and so I did, and people asked me who I was, and that just impressed me tremendously. That says a lot about the people of this community.”

Seigel describes Elburn as “a profound mixture of rural and suburb,” pointing to the grain bins that he can see from his house on Shannon Street. He expects that as waves of people arrive, it will create some tension, he said. Change always does.

“Every time there is a transition, there’s tension,” he said. “That’s almost a law of physics. We’ve got Fermilab not too far away, and they break atoms, and the energy that is applied for that kind of experiment is just huge. When all of a sudden you bring in a whole different group of people into a community, it’s like smashing two atoms together. There’s energy that’s going to be spent. There will be tension.”

Yet it’s also an opportunity, he said, and St. Gall’s wants to be there to welcome new residents as warmly as Elburn welcomed him. Right now, about 20 percent of Elburn’s residents are Catholics, and he expects that will remain true as Elburn Station brings an estimated 1,000 more Catholics to town.

“My hope is that St. Gall’s will be there to say that you are welcome, that if you’re Catholic and need a place to worship, there’s room for you and we’ll welcome you. I have no doubt this will be a very successful endeavor,” Seigel said.

The church has established an evangelization team to help go door to door and spread the gospel, he said, and they hope that many of the new Catholic arrivals—as many as 200 or 300 households—will join them. The growth will likely fuel the building of a new church building on the southwest end of Hughes Road, he said, where the parish has owned land for over 20 years.

“Genoa was a just a little more sleepy, a little less ready (than Elburn),” Seigel said. “I come here, and people have a readiness to build connections that I did not see in Genoa. I think that says a lot about the people of this community.”

That readiness to build community is something that Anderson sees as part of Elburn’s character, as well. And if there’s one organization that’s the heart of Elburn’s community today, he said, it’s the Lions Club.

“Elburn would not be Elburn without the Lions Club,” Anderson said. “The first thing that comes to mind is Elburn Days, but they do a whole lot more than that for the community.”

The village is home to the largest Lions Club in the state, and the club hosts multiple events every week. Chris Halsey will soon be the District Governor for Lions Club District 1J, visiting the other 63 clubs in the district and mentoring their leadership.

“Our club does more in a month than a lot of clubs do in a year,” Halsey said. “So the impact of the Lions Club on Elburn, it’s been tremendous.”

In addition to organizing Elburn Days, the village’s largest festival, the club raises funds for the vision impaired, offers vision screening at the Town and Country Library, sponsors community events like Breakfast with Santa and an Easter egg hunt, hosts popular weekly bingo nights and monthly spaghetti dinners, offers a scholarship for high school seniors, and sponsors two service clubs for kids, the Leos and the Junior Leos. Lions Club Park offers space for local baseball teams to play, as well as a handicapped-accessible playground.

Youth involvement is one of the reasons the Elburn Lions’ membership numbers are still thriving—the club has 185 members today, just three members shy of its peak—even though service clubs nationwide are losing 11 percent of their membership every year, Halsey said.

“I hear so much now (from other Lions Clubs), ‘We’re getting older now and we can’t do it anymore.’ Well, you should’ve gotten younger people to come in. You need to find ways to encourage people to join the club. You can’t let yourself mature and not have younger people with the vibrant energy to keep things going,” Halsey said.

That sense of vibrant community is exactly what Grabarek loves about Elburn and wants to maintain. The next thing he wants to promote, he said, are community gardens to give people another place to interact face-to-face, rather than just digitally.

“Maybe it sounds a little Pollyanna-ish on my part, but I want as much interaction as a resident would like to have, to allow those who are choosing to be selectively anonymous to take part in the community,” Grabarek said. “That’s why the library and the community organizations are so important, because they allow people to interact.”

For Anderson, the reality of Elburn as a village in transition doesn’t worry him. The only change he’s really seen is that life has sped up, and he wishes people would stop and smell the roses sometimes—advice he gives his three sons all the time, he said.

Elburn’s village motto is “melior non maior,” or “better, not bigger.”

Anderson thinks it’s possible for Elburn to be both.

“Change is just the natural way of things,” he said. “It’s just natural evolution.”

PART ONE: Memories of Elburn past

PART THREE: Elburn poised for steady growth

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