The communities of Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles are known as the “Tri-Cities" for good reason. Not only do the towns share connected borders, they are also united by natural resources such as the Fox River. The other connection shaping the Tri-Cities is economic change, and there has been major redevelopment over the years. The process continues to this day in St. Charles, where a major downtown reconstruction project begun 15 years ago is on the verge of completion. As a result, the city has attracted new businesses and enabled others to expand.
But the decisions necessary to achieve these goals were not easy. To gain perspective on the growth and change of St. Charles, the Batavia Communications Department (BCD) spoke with former St. Charles Mayor Susan Klinkhamer, whose name adorns a new parking deck facing a fully-occupied retail and restaurant corridor in downtown.
BCD: What do you remember most about the period when St. Charles began thinking about its downtown growth?
SK: It began quite a while back, but the thing that really got it rolling was the widening of Route 64 by the state. That narrowed the sidewalks and got people thinking “What do we want our city to be?”
BCD: When you became Mayor of St. Charles, what were some of the priorities?
SK: Well of course the City Council dictates quite a bit of that. There were business factions within town that had their own priorities. My role was often getting people to talk together. Get on the same page somehow. But it was not easy.
BCD: How about the idea to renovate the riverfront and tear down some of the older properties there?
SK: Yes there was quite a bit of resistance on a number of fronts. But some of those buildings, the Manor Restaurant in particular, were so far out of code and compliance with OSHA rules it was difficult to justify keeping them. They were quaint, and people were used to how they worked. But they weren’t accessible for all kinds of people. So factors like that entered the decision-making process in downtown St. Charles.
BCD: That was a risk taking down so many buildings, wasn’t it?
SK: Of course it was. In many ways it did not make me a popular mayor with some folks. But now there’s a parking deck where people can get close access to all those retail businesses and restaurants. And we put up residential that brings new residents into downtown. So the vision that we mapped out years ago has come to fruition.
BCD: What were some of the hurdles to development of the downtown?
SK: Well, for starters, people didn’t want tall buildings. “Nothing higher than the Hotel Baker!” they’d warn. But the look of these buildings now is quite nice, and the town actually looks better than it did.
We also had some people who didn’t want to sell, and some who wanted lots of money for their property and would not negotiate for less. So the action of going ahead with eminent domain put some of that in play. It wasn’t necessarily my choice to go that route. But some councilmen strongly wanted to make it happen quickly. So eminent domain kept the ball rolling. Whether that was the right or wrong way to go about it was not something I had the power or authority as Mayor to control.
BCD: How about the business community. How did they respond to all this action?
SK: Well, many were in on it of course. We had some significant property owners and people buying out other properties. There’s no question there was some chaos getting from Point A to Point B. We’d get together in one room and try to hash out everyone’s needs and differences. But truly, the key moment in all that change was the willingness of Blue Goose to move its business, and getting people, especially residents, to understand that change was necessary to create a downtown environment that was more suited to the present and future. Moving Blue Goose opened up the opportunity to redevelop the riverfront district. Now that we’re seeing how it is coming out, it makes more sense, and people actually come up to me in restaurants and other places to thank me for leadership in making some tough decisions. But without that commitment to move an institution and change the downtown, a lot of this would have been much more difficult.
BCD: What about economics and the city? Were people concerned about that?
SK: We also lost a big tax revenue source when the Arthur Andersen company had its problems. They were basically a strong source of tourism and tax dollars, up to $1M a year. So you take that away and city revenues were changed quite a bit. But we had a strong staff led by Larry Mulholland as City Administrator, and they consistently found ways to make the city work even with changing revenue streams and ups and downs in the economy. I was always grateful for that.
BCD: What do you most like about the City of St. Charles now?
SK: Well, I still work here. So I see how things are progressing. It makes me proud to be a part of it and to have served multiple terms as Mayor. Personally, I like the local coffee shops and other businesses of that scale that are doing well. We still have buildings to complete that will be a great addition to the look and feel of this community. And while there were political differences along the way with people in town, I think we all understand now that we were working for the better, even though we saw it through different eyes sometimes.
And I really like the leadership style of Ray Rogina, who is doing a wonderful job in our community now.”