IVAC luncheon details progress across Illinois Valley
NORTH UTICA — With almost 200 representatives from the communities of the Illinois Valley in attendance, the Illinois Valley Chamber of Commerce’s (IVAC) State of the Cities luncheon highlighted the recent growth of the area and the encouraging prospect of continued development.
IVAC Executive Director Joni Hunt began the event, held March 22 at Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort, by saying the fifth annual luncheon had set an attendance record for the second straight year.
Hunt shared statistics showing IVAC’s efforts to grow and expand its reach within the Illinois Valley have been as successful as the projects of the communities it helps represent.
Among other encouraging numbers, she reported 57 new members have joined IVAC in the past year and spoke of the increased number of ribbon cuttings for new businesses. She also spoke of the successes of their 40 Under 40 and youth mentoring programs.
“The number of recent new businesses opening within the Illinois Valley shows there’s an increased interest in investing in our community,” Hunt said.
The event was described as an informative gathering of area business leaders for a progress report on current and future community programs and projects given by local government officials.
Speakers included Ottawa City Commissioner Tom Ganiere, Peru Mayor Scott Harl, Spring Valley Mayor Walt Marini, North Utica Village President David Stewart, and Hennepin Village President Kevin Coleman.
Road and water improvement projects and other infrastructure work were common topics among the speakers. In addition, each community is continuing to develop plans for future improvements and an increase in community and recreational events and attractions.
Mayor Harl lauded Peru’s many public servants for their contributions to their community, particularly those in law enforcement and firefighters. He spoke highly of the benefits of the reciprocal mutual-aid agreements with surrounding communities.
He reported Peru has taken on no new debt since 2013 despite completing a lengthy list of city projects. Peru has welcomed 23 new businesses in the past year, and Harl reported several new development projects near the Peru Mall.
Harl said he hoped new legislation would soon be passed to restore the billions of dollars communities are losing through of e-commerce.
Village President Stewart discussed the ongoing bridge work at the river and plans to add a bike path to Starved Rock. North Utica is also preparing to increase the amount of sidewalks and add better, more appealing lighting over Mill Street to enhance visitors’ experiences.
They’ve also completed improvements recently to the wastewater plant and are working on an enhanced emergency disaster plan that will specifically address flooding and communication with residents.
Stewart announced the return of a popular event last held 20 years ago, the North Utica Pork Festival, which is scheduled for Aug. 11 and 12. He announced the village will soon have a Casey’s General Store and welcomed North Utica’s other new businesses, as well.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve our economic development,” he said.
Commissioner Ganiere began by thanking the many communities that provided support to Ottawa after the extensive damage caused by last year’s tornado.
He also discussed how Ottawa has revitalized its downtown area and reported that development of the riverfront area will continue.
“If you’d have visited Ottawa not that many years ago, you would’ve seen a desolate downtown area. Over the past few years, it’s changed into a beautiful, landscaped and vibrant downtown with very few vacancies, and we’re committed to continuing our work,” Ganiere said.
Mayor Marini described his city’s new $12 million waste water treatment plant. Additionally, $500,000 was spent to improve the water treatment plant. The upgrades were to improve both efficiency and quality well into the future.
Other recent improvements in Spring Valley include a new maintenance garage and upgrades to the library, city hall, street lights and parks. Proceeds from video gaming are being used to improve the sidewalks. The city is using a half-cent sales tax to improve its roads. Marini also spoke of his city’s efforts to remove and demolish unsightly properties.
“Spring Valley also welcomed 10 new businesses this past year, and we have two more community projects in development,” he said.
Marini also discussed the improvements made at St. Margaret’s Hospital and the $16 million construction project at St. Bede Academy.
“We’ve also joined forces with LaSalle, Peru and Oglesby for a shared dispatch center, and we’re in the early stages of working towards a shared police facility. The fact we can come together and talk about such a thing is simply amazing. We’re seeing a growing regionalism, and we’re committed to a progressive future,” he said.
Village President Coleman began by saying he was proud that Hennepin was a part of the IVAC community and its continuing successes.
Hennepin recently made improvements to its water district at a cost of $1.2 million. Coleman discussed the comprehensive improvements made during Hennepin’s $850,000 road improvement project, which included upgrades to the water mains, hydrants and curbing in the area, as well as the addition of a bike path.
Coleman then discussed a problem near Hennepin that ultimately affects the entire Illinois Valley: the partly-demolished steel mill.
“Anyone who’s been by there knows it looks like a disaster. I’ve also seen it from the air, and I can tell you, it looks 10 times worse from above,” he said.
He spoke of how the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will inspect the site for asbestos and lead paint, which might be drifting over to Hennepin. Coleman also mentioned previous water pollution in the village caused by dumping at the mill, which then leached into the village’s water supply.
Another challenge related to the former steel mill is the ongoing court battle between the owners of the site and Marquis Energy over access to a railroad spur.
“Identifying ownership of the mill is difficult, and this could be tied up in court for years. It’s an eyesore to Hennepin, and although it’s a prime area for industrial development, it’s worthless as it sits. We’re losing potential jobs because we can’t show it as it is now,” Coleman said.
While he acknowledged the benefits of the nearby Dixon Waterfowl Refuge and the work of the Wetlands Initiative, Coleman drew understanding laughter from leaders of other communities as he described the environmental challenges posed by the upcoming project, which will include a small bridge connecting Hennepin to the refuge area.
“Here we are in Illinois, losing jobs and people to Indiana, and we’ve got to complete a study about where the Indiana bats are living in Hennepin,” he said, jokingly.