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Thursday was sunny and hot. It was the perfect way to spend an afternoon, visiting the Bluff Spring Fen. I was treated to a nice breeze blowing through the fields and the sky provided a spectacular cloud show.
A fen is defined as a type of wetland. This 160 acre, mineral-rich, spring fed fen is part of a larger 225 acre nature preserve managed by the Forest Preserve Districts of Kane and Cook Counties and the City of Elgin.
Nature preserves have a higher degree of protections and regulations than parks and forest preserves. There are no picnic tables or shelters. It is not a playground. No cycling, dogs or horseback riding are allowed. With extremely narrow paths and an occasional footbridge, it is the perfect place for a tranquil walk and to view rare and protected plants and wildlife.
Here are a sampling of the photos I took on my first visit.
I look forward to visiting again and capturing the change of seasons in the months to come.
How many people are familiar with this scenario?
You step away from the catered lunch spread, company paid for ‘just because’; and you walk into your supervisor’s office, noticing his new laptop. His old one was only six months old while most of the other computers in the building are at least five years old. You ask if you can discuss the purchase of a new piece of software that will result in time and efficiency savings for your department – leading towards a substantial growth in productivity.
Your supervisor stuffs the last of the free muffin in his mouth and ponders for a moment. Closing his new laptop and leaning back in his recently purchased, leather high-back chair, he says, “I’d like to help but we’re out of money. Maybe we can consider it in the new fiscal year.” The new fiscal year, of course, is nine months away.
We’ve probably all experienced this at one time or another. Especially in corporate or government work.
It goes like this:
- There is a problem.
- There is a solution. (Usually multiple solutions.)
- No one is willing to take the time or the necessary action to solve the problem.
- The problem continues.
- The decision-makers continue to complain about the problem.
- Business as usual.
This perfectly describes the majority leadership of the Elgin City Council*.
The City of Elgin, Illinois had an estimated population of 111,117 as of 2014. This makes it the eighth largest city in Illinois, yet it has maintained the same feel of any small town in America. And that’s a good thing.
The bad thing? The center of downtown is a ghost town and has been for years. Especially after 5pm and most weekends. Aside from a few struggling restaurants and bars and three (yes, three) tattoo parlors; most nights– there is just nothing going on. I’m not counting the Centre of Elgin recreation facility (operating at a deficit every year since it opened in 2002) or the library which are both to the north end of downtown. South of downtown is the Grand Victoria Casino which has also seen a major decline in attendance and revenue in recent years.
Elgin’s 2015 Budget is $290,535,730. I repeat, nearly $300 million dollars! But according to the City Council, Elgin has no money. That is, for important things. Things that are holding the city hostage– like the lack of economic development.
We need economic development NOW.
Why is there no economic development department? No money. At least that’s what they say. Of course you don’t have to look far to see where the money could come from, if the City Council really wanted to take the steps to advance this agenda.
You know the saying. “You have to spend money to make money.” But, what happens when you spend money and you don’t make money? You make excuses. Elgin constantly defends ineffective actions of poor financial decisions with phrases like, “Oh, they (or that) are (is) invaluable.” Or, “Some things just can’t be measured.” Really? Did you even try?
Throwing Money at the Wind Two non-profit organizations that could be considered responsible for economic development are the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) and the Elgin Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (EACVB). Both are mostly ineffective. Neither, despite continued funding, show any accountability. Neither are even able to effectively use their websites or social media towards successful progress.
I feel I need to repeat that these are nonprofit organizations. They are not Elgin governmental departments. The money they receive for the city is basically theirs to spend how they see fit, without regulation. The DNA started as a volunteer organization and now has a paid staff (as does the EACVB) . The city gives them this money without any expectation of measurable return.
The DNA was supposed to be financially independent of the City as of 2015, and the City had not budgeted to continue funding their efforts in the current budget. Yet, on June 24th, 2015, the City Council voted to continue to give them money, through a Purchase of Service Agreement for an unbudgeted amount of $135,000. And, not for just one more year, they amended it for two more years. In spite of a few Councilmen raising their concerns, the Council still voted 9-0 in favor of this continued expenditure.
But, wait! There’s no money! So where is this unbudgeted $135,000 coming from? And why isn’t it being spent to hire a director of economic development instead?
Now, the DNA may try to claim success with the recent opening of three new downtown businesses. Okay, that’s nice– but what about the seven that closed in the past year? That’s right, seven businesses have closed. While it’s not the responsibility of the DNA or City to make businesses successful, they should still be providing support and resources to give them every possible chance.
There was an article in the Daily Herald recently about the Elgin Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau; questioning its expenditures (71% staff and travel) and suggesting there should be proof of its effectiveness. Nearly $200,000 of their budget comes from about half of Elgin’s hotel/motel tax revenue.
LOOK! I found money! If the City of Elgin took the money they gave these two nonprofits ($335,000), they could easily hire and create a small department of economic development. That’s still only a pathetic 0.1% of the City’s annual budget.
The Elgin City Council believes that throwing money at something–even after years of no measurable results, is better than nothing. Which is exactly what they are getting in return. Then they can continue to shrug their shoulders and point fingers of blame at others, claiming they (the Council) tried. If I’m wrong— show me the numbers.
The Elgin City Council needs to learn how to cut its losses. They need to learn how to say ‘no‘ and ‘enough is enough‘. Continuing to fund ineffective organizations and projects with no accountability, is irresponsible and being poor stewards of our community’s money. This has gone on for years and it’s time that it stops.
The City of Elgin needs some sound financial planning and should be focusing on developing and reinvigorating our community. Not, continuing to toss money at organizations that are not effective, in order shift the blame.
So back to my original scenario… there are always people that have the ability to make change- to make decisions (sometimes difficult) that are better choices when looking at the big picture. Unfortunately, people often make decisions that are selfish, self-serving, or just downright easier.
There always seems to be money for the wrong things… Ideas that aren’t fully developed, things that are personally or politically beneficial; and it’s always easier to ‘do the same old thing’ than to commit to bringing about change. People are so afraid of change! Why is that?
Elgin City Council, you were elected as the leaders of our community to manage, protect and improve the city and its finances. It’s time you step up to the plate, make some tough decisions and do the job you were elected to do. Stop singing the ‘No Money Blues’ and fix the problem. The time to act is now.
*NOTE: When I refer to the Elgin City Council, I am referring to them as a whole. This includes the City Manager (non-voting member) who, as the senior ranking staff member on the City’s payroll; oversees and is responsible for bringing the majority of the financial and policy decisions to the Council for approval and implementation. There are only few individual Councilmen that are frequently vocal– seeking change and not always voting with the majority. Unfortunately, as members of the Council, for purposes here, they are lumped into the whole– guilty by association.
Whether you live in a rural or urban setting, and whether you know it or not; there are some amazing walking and biking trails near you. I found sights, sounds and smells that can dazzle to extremes, just a short distance from my home. I can experience the city, farm and fields, beautiful river and forest views; all in a relatively short distance. The sounds of traffic, babbling brooks, chirping birds… even silence. Stale city smells, pungent livestock, fresh forest air… are all there waiting for you to explore.
Last week, I took my longest ride so far, traveling south from Elgin down to the heart of St. Charles. There and back, my ride clocked in at just over 22 miles, round trip. To date, I’ve covered about 16 miles of the Fox River Trail (FRT) between St. Charles and East Dundee.
In total, the trail is approximately 43 miles long from Montgomery to the south, to Algonquin on the north end. The trail links in multiple locations with other Illinois trails branching out in other directions.
Here are some highlights, as well as some tips to help you avoid getting lost and to work around some trail closures. I’m sharing some photos I’ve taken along the path over the past few weeks.
Detours. I was naive enough to believe once you were on the trail, you’d stay on a clearly marked trail. It’s not the case. There are some closures and detours you’ll want to be aware of along the trail.
Traveling north from Elgin on the Fox River Trail. There are really only two minor considerations you’ll want to know about traveling north of downtown Elgin. The first, is a pretty simple jog that takes you a few blocks east of the river, around the Gail Borden Library, to allow you to cross near the Kimball street bridge. There are green bike signs that help get you across this busy street. You then have the option of taking the sidewalk around either side of the library until it reconnects with the trail. This is a permanent part of the path. I should note that once you cross Kimball, you should take the side walk south of the library back down to the river or you’ll miss a beautifully maintained section and the Veteran’s Memorial. Otherwise, you just continue straight ahead, passed the library and a large (currently) vacant piece of land, back to the actual trail going north.
The second spot is at I-90 about a quarter mile passed Trout Park. The path is not closed there. I saw one post online stating it was closed. You are crossing through a construction zone– and there are signs requesting you walk your bike through the short stretch, although most cyclists I’ve encountered, ignore the signs. The bridge that crosses the river at I-90 (taking you off trail) is closed and under construction.
Traveling south from Elgin on the Fox River Trail. A couple miles south of Elgin the FRT is closed. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll suddenly find yourself traveling along the Illinois Prairie path, and not know how you got there, or how to get back on the FRT. Forking off to the west is a closed path that appears to dead end at a train trestle. There is actually supposed to be a bridge
going under the trestle that connects the trail. This spot tripped me up my first ride. It is not marked as part of the FRT and there are no signs anywhere that instruct how you can detour back to the trail.
The best work-around I found, is to take the Illinois Prairie Path to Middle Street and go west, into South Elgin, go north one block on South Gilbert Street to State Street and then taking the State Street Bridge west, putting you are back on the trail again.
On my return trip, I did investigate the ‘skipped’ portion of the FRT and it is walkable but not easy to ride– up to where the bridge is out. That portion of the path is in extreme disrepair, lots of steep and bumpy, twisting spots that need to be redeveloped– if and when the bridge is replaced.
Seba Park on the west side of the Fox River is currently under construction but you can follow the path through, staying on the trail. From there, the trail is quite beautiful and unobstructed. Following the shoreline of the Fox River, along side a railroad track for some distance, is a nice peaceful ride.
There is one long, fairly steep incline that I find too difficult to ride and walked it instead, when heading south. It’s fun riding north though— but you need to use your breaks.
As you get close to St. Charles, there are a few spots where you have to ride main roads and residential streets between gaps in actual dedicated paths— so you’ll need to use extreme caution if walking or cycling. Some spots aren’t marked, you just continue straight ahead and the trail will become clear when it picks up again. I used the TrailLink app and GPS just to be sure.
I stopped when I reached downtown St. Charles because I was confused where to go. The map shows the trail forking and following both sides of the river through downtown. You cannot ride your bike on the sidewalks in downtown St. Charles though. The narrow roads and traffic congestion make riding in the streets a little daunting as well. Signs are posted requiring cyclists to walk bikes on sidewalks. Since I was out for a ride, not a walk; I decided to turn back towards Elgin at this point. I found out later, there is an actual riding path on the west side of the Fox River, which after some distance, must cross back over the river to the east side, before heading south towards Aurora.
On my way back, a work crew on the path forced me on a bit of a detour through a small portion of Tekakwitha Woods. I was rewarded with a stunning bridge view I would have otherwise missed.
I’m looking forward to more exploring this summer. My next goal is to ride from Elgin to the northern trailhead in Algonquin. A friend of mine just told me yesterday that north of East Dundee, is a beautiful scenic ride.
There are thousands of miles of trails across the United States and some are bound to be near you. Some you never knew existed. Get out there and explore!
- Trail Link- Fox River Trail
- Kane County Forest Preserve- Fox River Trail
- Fox River Bike Trail
- City of Elgin- Biking & Walking
I was almost at my six-mile mark, having just crossed a newly constructed, planked bridge– and there was the sign that greeted me: BIKE PATH CLOSED UNTIL SEPTEMBER 2015. Not what I expected to see when I reached IL-Route 25 and Stearns Rd. a week ago. It was my first ride south on the Fox River Trail from Elgin, Illinois. This was an exploratory test run.
I’d ridden north on the trail a few times, going as far as East Dundee. This was my first venture south on the trail. I’d set a goal to ride all the way to the south end of the trail by the end of the summer. Now with the trail closure, it looks like I might have to come up with a new challenge.
As a kid growing up in Florida, I rode my bike a lot. We lived in a new, sparsely populated subdivision with plenty of safe road to ride. We also made our own trails, even though it was pretty difficult to ride in the Florida sand and clay. On a rare occasion, I’d leave the subdivision and ride up the main road to the convenience store. Usually, picking up pop bottles along the way to redeem the deposit for penny candy.
Yes, I’m that old.
We lived in three different places when I was in my teens; all within four to five miles of the schools I attended. I didn’t ride my bike to class on a regular basis but sometimes I would ride there after hours or on weekends.
I also really loved to ride my bike after a good rain. I’d ride through puddles with the water and sand splashing; spinning off the tires and spokes– coating my calves and ankles.
That was so many years ago.
I’d only been on a bike a few times since then.
So what’s the sudden interest now?
Exercise. Exploring. A Challenge. Entertainment. Pick one.
Elgin, Illinois is a fairly, bike-friendly city. Downtown there are some bike lanes, many of which, strangely, don’t connect from block to block. The streets aren’t terribly congested most of the time, making them fairly safe and easy to ride. The bonus is that home is only about a half-mile from the Fox River Trail.
I’d seriously thought about getting a bike a number of times in the past few years. I was always afraid I’d end up not riding it enough to be worth the investment. Then last November, we were at a charity event, anchored by a huge silent auction. One of the auction items was a bike, we bid— and the rest is history. I’m now the proud owner of a 2014 Raleigh Talus 3.0 Mountain Bike.
I was only able to go for a couple very short rides (last fall) before the weather got too cold and icy. My first real ride wasn’t until March— still cold— snow on the ground— at least the roads and sidewalks were clear. Maybe not so ironically, it was also rainy. We’d had a couple of warmer days, so I hadn’t really considered the weather when I went for the early morning ride. Besides the rain, the temperature was hovering around freezing and I hadn’t thought to wear gloves. After a couple miles, frozen fingers and wet with rain, I cut my ride short. Not to mention the burn in my legs from unused muscles I forgot I even had.
So far, I’ve only ridden about sixty miles total. I found a great fitness app, Runtastic, that uses GPS tracking to record and map my rides. In addition to mapping and distance, it also records elevation changes, calories burned, time and a lot of other information.
Biking is great exercise and a perfect way to clear your head. It’s also wonderful way to see the city and nearby trails. Riding on two wheels, you see things in a completely different light.
It’s never too late to reignite a passion for an old hobby or activity. It just takes the motivation to get out and do it.
In my next post I’ll share some photographs from my rides, so far; exploring the Fox River Trail.
When you compliment and criticize or clean and organize… do you Chop or Trim? When you cut your hair do you trim and maintain it or chop it all off for a drastic new look? What’s your approach?
Yesterday morning I opened the door to take the dogs out and was greeted with the sawing and grinding sounds of the machinery used to trim back the trees from the power lines. I found this somewhat odd since the company had already been through our neighborhood in November and December. I walked around the front and sure enough, one guy was up in the bucket, another on the ground, vigorously attacking tree limbs. And I mean ATTACKING the tree limbs!
I’ve always questioned the way the city (or its sub-contractors) maintained the trees around the power lines. I completely understand the need for the them to coexist in a way that the lines are not disrupted, but the way the trees are trimmed has resulted in unhealthy, gnarled and disfigured specimens. Most of them are downright ugly. It appears the objective is to chop out the center, or the heart of the tree, leaving an unbalanced V-shaped wedge. Now keep in mind, over the years Elgin has proudly touted its historic tree-lined streets. They’ve even received national recognition for it. Today, there aren’t many left.
When we moved here 13 years ago, we had six trees growing on the parkway (the area between the sidewalk and street), five of which were around 60-80 feet tall. Of those five, none of them have looked especially healthy, and it took three years of phone calls to convince someone that one, with a decaying hole clear through the trunk, needed to come down. We now have three left. The youngest, shortest of these, was the one being attacked the other morning.
The workers didn’t prune or trim it… they chopped and hacked it. They removed nearly all the upper branches, there is no longer a heart or crown, but they left one curved branch that extends below the power lines over the street. When they were done, the one that had been removing all the branches, stood back and examined his work and said to the other, “That doesn’t look good”. To which the other man responded, “You did it. I told you it was too much”. The first guy then shrugged and said, “It’s just a tree.” and they went back to work.
It’s just a tree.
Though I don’t think they killed it, it is definitely disfigured for the rest of its years. I’m not sure what kind of tree it is but it is not not one of the common Maples that are in abundance. This tree had a nice healthy shape and for the most part, the main branches were no threat to the power lines in its reach.
Now, what if this tree were a person? What if instead of saws cutting branches, it was words cutting into someone’s personality, looks or work ethic? How much damage could those words do? Will they permanently disfigure their target? Will they promote healthy growth?
Do you Chop or Trim?