What makes North Aurora tick?
● By Tim
By Shirley Mott
So, what does make North Aurora tick? We turned to community leaders from the village, fire district, schools, library, parks and the police department for the answer. From their responses, North Aurora’s slogan, “A Village with a View to the Future,” not only makes sense, it is a theme that runs through this village as clearly as the Fox River itself. There is always one oar in the water, so to speak, as this village works together, and keeps moving forward, to build a better future.
“Our ability to plan, and then work the plan, has kept North Aurora financially strong, even as we grew exponentially,” says Village President Dale Berman.
Having moved to North Aurora in 1962, Berman has seen the population zoom from around 1,500 to approximately 17,000 currently. The 1980 census listed North Aurora’s population at 5,240. Ten years later, 5,940 people called North Aurora home, a figure that ballooned to 10,585 in 2000 and hit 16,760 in the 2010 Census.
Berman explained that without a well thought-out mix of commercial, retail and residential, growth at that rate would result in a major tax burden on the residents. Location is a major reason North Aurora grew so fast.
Location, Location, Location
The Village lies along the integral east-west I-88 corridor, making it desirable for commercial development. Although he hasn’t been involved with North Aurora nearly as long as Berman, the new village administrator, Steven Bosco, is impressed with what the Village has to offer.
“Our proximity to I-88 allows us to attract all types of commercial development,” says Bosco. “We have a mix of commercial development areas that would be attractive to any type of business. If you’re a business, you can fit somewhere in town.”
One example of recent commercial growth is the North Aurora Town Center, which lies just north of I-88 between Randall and Orchard Roads. With a number of national retailers, including Target, J.C. Penney and Best Buy, this growing shopping center not only serves North Aurorans, but also attracts shoppers from nearby Aurora and Batavia and beyond.
Within the same general area, Woodman’s Markets is a draw for grocery shoppers, while the North Aurora Auto Mall serves as the largest auto shopping center in the Fox Valley.
Recently, the Village annexed an area in Batavia Township on either side of Orchard Road. This land carries a flex zoning designation, which gives a potential developer more options to consider without necessitating a zoning change. The Village hopes this will attract lucrative development offers.
Berman also says that although the Village’s commercial development along the Randall Road corridor lags behind its neighbors to the north, it is filling in. He says the commercial growth is because the Village is “easy to deal with” from the standpoint of looking at new business.
He cited the recent groundbreaking on a 600,000 square foot. light-industrial facility off Orchard Gateway Boulevard as one example. Once completed, a second facility will offer 400,000 square feet. Bosco added that the financial stability of the Village is a draw.
“Our reserves are very strong,” explains Bosco. “The board (Board of Trustees) has done a fine job over the years, as has our finance director, of making sure our budget has always been on point.”
“If you compare us to other communities in the area, we’re much better off financially than they are,” adds Berman.
Berman also complimented the staff, calling them “fantastic.” “They are an integral part of our success in developing a sound strategic plan and carrying it out.”
Room to Grow
Part of the strategic plan previously referenced was the building of a new home for the police department. Prior to its completion on South Lincolnway in 2010, the 28 members of the North Aurora Police Department worked out of the Village Hall at 25 E. State St.
Police Chief David Summer says the building was designed “to be our last spot,” with future growth of North Aurora taken into consideration. Chief Summer spent many years in the North Aurora Police Department, beginning his career as a patrol officer in 1986.
He is no stranger to the inner workings of the government either as he worked double-duty as the police chief and as the village administrator for nearly a year prior to the hiring of Bosco. Although a challenge at the time, he sees it as a long-term benefit.
“I saw the bigger picture,” says Summer. “I realize that although the Police Department is a large part of the fiscal budget, it isn’t the whole thing and we all need to work together.”
It turns out that working together is a part of the department’s mission. They are developing ways to become more community focused. Within the past several years, the department initiated the Police and Citizens Together (PACT) program to improve the communication between the police department and those they serve.
“PACT holds officers accountable for the relationship with the public in their (assigned) PACT area,” Summer explains. “If there is a problem, we’re here to help, not make things more difficult.”
The PACT officer helps citizens to be proactive rather than reactive against crime by educating and building on the Neighborhood Watch programs. Additionally, an Honor Guard created in 2011 also helps fulfill the department’s core values: worthy of trust, respect others, community focused, and always improving. Most recently, the Honor Guard participated in Veterans Day activities and the opening ceremonies for the Vietnam Moving Wall.
Ask Kevin Davis, administrator of the Messenger Public Library, what makes North Aurora tick and he’ll quickly point out that the library serves as a hub of many activities. The North Aurora Lions Club and a garden club are two of the many organizations who hold meetings in the Library’s three meeting spaces.
“The library continues to grow because our patrons appreciate the service we provide,” notes Davis. “They can check out materials, utilize our meeting rooms, and participate in programs, use computers and much more.
“They get a good value for what they pay in property taxes.”
Much like the other taxing bodies in North Aurora, Messenger Library is not content to maintain the current level of service. They, too, have a view to the future.
The library board is actively working to create a long-range comprehensive plan based on the results of an independent study. In September, three focus groups (staff, Board of Trustees, and a diverse group representing the community) identified areas the library could improve. The board is now working on a plan that incorporates the suggestions.
Already the library is working on revamping the website to make it more “user friendly” on mobile devices, as well as on a computer. Because of the increased popularity of e-books, Messenger Library joined a grant project, eRead Illinois, which will provide a secondary platform for e-books that patrons can download.
Besides keeping up with technology changes, the board is also working on making improvements to the interior space in the library and completing preventative maintenance work on the exterior; all without the need for a referendum. According to Davis, being fiscally responsible is one of their priorities.
“The board has been putting aside money for improvements,” says Davis. “We work hard to live within the tax dollars we receive.”
Three School Districts
As with any town, for North Aurorans with children, the quality of the schools their children attend is of utmost importance. In North Aurora, three different districts serve the community, Batavia #101, Kaneland #302, and West Aurora #129. By far, the majority attend West Aurora schools, which is covered in this article.
North Aurora students attend Fearn, Goodwin, and Schneider Elementary Schools, Herget and Jewel Middle Schools, and West Aurora High School. According to Mike Chapin, community relations director for District #129, North Aurora students account for about 20% of the entire student population.
He also said that exciting new academic initiatives are on the horizon. With their own view to the future, the school district is participating in a program along with Waubonsee Community College, the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce and the City of Aurora. “Pathways to Prosperity” is an initiative that will educate students; preparing them to fill the science-, technology-, engineering-, and math- (STEM) related jobs that area businesses struggle to fill locally.
“During a week-long session with area businesses, we found out that the employers couldn’t find STEM-related workers with business acumen,” explains Chapin. “We are working with Waubonsee to develop a curriculum that will launch in the fall (2014) to help fill this void.”
Computer science courses in the high school will be added as duel-credit classes. Chapin said that in the future, a student in the West Aurora School District could possibly graduate with an IT associates degree if they follow the IT pathway. Others will likely earn industry certifications that will make them job-ready when they graduate from high school. Eventually, the IT pathway will be available to students beginning in the sixth grade.
Developing pathways in health sciences and advanced manufacturing (robotics) will follow. With all pathways, the goal is to have the business community involved every step of the way. Learning tasks are to be based on real-world business applications.
“In sixth grade, students may receive an orientation program by a business, such as a visit to Cabot Labs,” explains Chapin. “At upper levels, we may even see internships being offered to the pathway students.”
Also of interest to North Aurora parents is the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School on the Aurora University campus. This school will serve students in the third through eighth grades in the Aurora East, Aurora West, Indian Prairie and Oswego school districts. They, too, are aiming for a fall 2014 start.
The Fox River Runs Through It
Ask many community leaders, and they’ll say that the Fox River is an integral piece of the fabric of the community. With picturesque parks and the Fox River Trail, it is an asset, not an obstacle. In North Aurora, all views to the future likely include the Fox River.
“We recognize that the Fox River is one of the most beautiful things we have in the community,” says Village President Dale Berman. “We want to utilize it better.”
North Aurora was originally known as Schneider’s Crossing. A mill built on the east bank of the Fox River in 1837 by German immigrant John Peter Schneider is the foundation of North Aurora. A commercial success, the mill attracted more people to the area. By the turn of the century, about 300 people lived in the town.
Perhaps the river is no more important among the various taxing bodies serving North Aurora than to the Fox Valley Park District. Originally founded in 1947 to protect the land along the river, there are currently 22 miles of Fox Valley shoreline (including islands) under the jurisdiction of the Fox Valley Park District.
North Aurora is home to two of the district’s top outdoor educational venues: Lippold Park and Red Oak Nature Center, both lying along the east bank of the Fox River.
During 2013, Phase ll improvements were completed in the 30-plus acres of Lippold, including the construction of a shelter-styled “tree house” structure. It is set amid an amphitheater setting with interpretive displays and observation areas. According to Jeff Long, public relations manager for the district, Lippold is “an environmental gem for all who experience it.”
Red Oak Nature Center adds another 40 acres of parkland to North Aurora and is just south of Lippold. The popular wildlife room and other parts of the center are currently undergoing modernization. Red Oak is also home to Devil’s Cave, a popular spot for exploration and is rich in folklore.
According to Long, the improvements to these nature areas follow a recent trend, which is to integrate an appreciation for nature while having fun.
“We are building many new trails shorter and suitable for moms with strollers,” says Long.
Although the Village doesn’t have its own park district, Village officials don’t see that as a negative.
“We have a good working relationship with the fire, school and park districts,” says Berman. “By being part of the Fox Valley Park District, residents have access to the facilities and programs of the second largest park district in Illinois.”
New Fire Station in the Future?
The North Aurora Fire Protection District has also seen its share of changes as the community grew. Like their counterparts in the other taxing bodies, they have their own view for the future – one that may eventually mean a new fire station.
When Station #1 was built on the corner of State and Monroe Streets in 1963, volunteers manned the district. Fire Chief Steve Miller became the first fulltime employee in 1993. Now, the district has grown to 26 fulltime firefighters and paramedics, and 18 who work part time. Miller points out that besides the aging infrastructure, the station was never built for people to live in.
“It may be time to begin discussions about this station with the Village,” says Miller. “It could be that this land is more valuable to the Village for other uses, in which case we could build a new station on the site of the Southern Kane County Training Association on Butterfield Road.”
What comes of this idea is anyone’s guess now. Chief Miller is on record that he is retiring at the end of his current contract, which ends in 2015. A new station may be his goal, but it may not come to fruition prior to his retirement.
The rapid community growth necessitated an additional station, which was built in 2007. Station #2 was located on Tanner Road to improve response time to citizens living in the western portion of the fire district. Because of its location, it currently provides a lot of mutual aid to Sugar Grove and western Batavia.
Like other community servants interviewed, the North Aurora Firefighters Association gives back to the community in many ways. Throughout the year, they contribute to various community organizations, raising much of the money at their annual turkey raffle held the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Poised for the Future
No matter which taxing body interviewed, they were all positive about North Aurora’s future. No doubt, they are all planning: TIF Districts, comprehensive plans, strategic plans, river plans, pathways; all have something going on.
“We’re poised for growth and we’re actively seeking businesses,” summed Berman. “We may not make a big splash with a large economic development department, but the developers know we’re interested in talking with anyone."