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Elgin: An American History - Table of Contents



A summary of the events that occurred after
Elgin: An American History
was published in 1984

By E. C. Alft

Copyright 1999-2001 by E. C. Alft
Used with permission @ ElginHistory.com


During the decade of the eighties, Elgin rose from a discouraging beginning to a new resurgence that is still continuing. The opening of the Spring Hill Mall in 1980 spelled the end of downtown as a retail trading center. Despite the opening of the Spring Street parking deck that year, major retailers headed north, and the city's share of the sales tax declined.

Inflation resulted in soaring interest rates from 1980 through 1982. Conventional 30 year mortgage could be obtained only by paying 13 to 14 percent as well as points. Interest on car loans ranged from 15 to 21 percent. Construction was at a near stand still. The 1981 United Way campaign failed to reach its goal, and in 1982 Elgin Metal Casket moved to Indiana, leaving about 200 without jobs. Early in 1983 local unemployment climbed to 13 percent.

The turn around came with a recovery in the national economy, the westward expansion of the metropolitan area along the Northwest Tollway corridor, and an abundant water supply.

On a hot summer day in 1975, water use set a record demand of 12.5 million gallons. That was more than the city's three treatment plants could produce, and when the reservoirs ran dry, the booster pumps began sucking air. A temporary ban on sprinkling ended the crisis, but fire fighting capabilities were reduced. Pressure at times was so low that the fire department called the water department when it had to turn on even one hydrant. Unless the problem was resolved, residential, commercial and industrial development was blocked.

By a 4-3 vote on March 31, 1976 the city council authorized a new 16 million gallon per day plant on the west side of the Fox River. Because demands on the deep wells in the suburban area were increasing, water levels were falling, and Elgin's plant would be designed to tap the Fox River. Although construction was stalled until 1980 by the high interest rates, the Riverside Water Treatment plant was in full operation by 1983. Elgin was the first municipality in the six-county metropolitan area to use a surface water supply other than Lake Michigan.

Although it was the most costly project ever undertaken by the city -- $24 million for the treatment plant and water system improvements -- Riverside has made it possible for Elgin to grow. There were only 136 housing starts in the three years, 1980, 1981, and 1982. In 1989 alone 885 single family housing permits were issued. Between 1980 and 1990, population increased by 13,212, the largest percentage growth since the 1920s.

In addition to its water supply, Elgin was an attractive place for company locations because of its position along an expressway only 25 miles away from the world's busiest airport. The Tollway's five-mile course through the city would spawn factories, office buildings, warehouses, stores, and motels. It would increase the city's sales tax and property tax revenue, add a touch of suburbia to the community's image; and fasten the local economy more tightly into the metropolitan web.

The eighties solidified the city's transition to an economy based on educational, health, and financial services. School District U46, its offices in Elgin, became the state's second largest in terms of student enrollment. Elgin Community College opened a downtown campus in the vacated Sears building. The school system and the two general hospitals, Sherman and St. Joseph, were among the five major employers. White collar workers were also employed in the new office parks-Beacon I-Ell, Oaks, and the Fox River Business Center. Retail sales that had ebbed with the exodus from downtown began climbing with the opening of the "plaza" shopping centers-Tyler Creek Plaza, Fox River Plaza, and Clock Tower Plaza.

One of the significant developments of the decade was Elgin's emergence as a credit card processor. First Card, then known as the BankAmericard credit division of the First National Bank of Chicago, moved to Elgin from Chicago's Loop in 1973. At the end of 1980 it was employing about 850, and in 1989, when ground was broken for a huge complex near the intersection of Randall Road and the Tollway, more than 1500 were on the payroll.

By the end of the decade, Mayor George Van De Voorde could state that "the problem today is not finding new industry but finding good places to put all of it."

CHRONOLOGY: 1980-1989


1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989


History is often said, erroneously, to repeat itself. In the late 80s and early 90s of the last century Elgin was booming with the growth of watch production and the arrival of new industries. Then came the Panic of '93 which resulted in massive unemployment and shortened hours for those remaining on the job. The city stagnated. In the late 80s and early 90s of this century, Elgin was again reviving, this time because of its location along the Tollway and its abundant supply of water. In 1993, however, instead of being hit by a business depression, Elgin was selected as tenth and final riverboat gambling site by the Illinois Gaming Board.

The Grand Victoria, opened in October 1994, is the state's largest and most profitable riverboat. It employs 1600, attracts 10,000 visitors daily, and contributes about $1.5 million per month to city government revenue. The casino made possible an annual $200 senior citizen property tax rebate, the elimination of the $25 vehicle license, and many infrastructure improvements, but the basis of the city's economic growth continues to be the expressway and the Fox River.

During the ten years 1990-1999, Elgin issued building permits for more than 5,000 residential units. Its area increased by more than five square miles, and its population swelled beyond 90,000.

Completion of an I-90 interchange in 1990 accelerated development along the Randall Road corridor. The project included a new four-lane bridge and on-and-off ramps providing access to and from the east. A full interchange, with a west-bound exit, was constructed in 1995-96. Over the objections of Sleepy Hollow and Gilberts, raised in an unsuccessful suit, Elgin annexed four parcels formed by the intersection and moved its boundaries north to Highway 72, more than eight miles from Fountain Square.

Five separate locations of First Card (now First USA) were consolidated in a complex just southwest of the Tollway and Randall Road. Opened in 1991 and later expanded, this credit card processor was employing 3,000 before the decade ended. The four-story Panasonic regional headquarters and consumer products warehouse on the southeast comer of the interchange also was completed in 199 1. The combined area of occupied space was 1. 1 million square feet. Another office structure, the former corporate headquarters of Safety Kleen, was completed in 1993, and the Randall Point office building was opened northeast of the interchange in 1999.

The Randall corridor south of the Highway 20 by-pass became the west side's place to shop, bank, and eat. Wal-Mart, with an inside McDonald's, opened in 1992. Target Greatland, an Omni Superstore (now Dominick's), a Handy Andy hardware (now Hobby Lobby), followed in 1993, and a Home Depot and an Aldi's in 1999. New bank buildings arose along this major county highway: a branch of First Chicago (now Bank One) in 1994, the First Community Bank and First Federal Savings in 1996, and Elgin State Bank in 1998. Traffic along the road attracted several restaurants, including Elliot's banquet hall. and specialty stores.

The Elgin Community College campus, Spartan Meadows golf course, and the Sports Complex were at one time part of the farm operated by what is now the Elgin Mental Health Center. The City of Elgin purchased the remaining part of the acreage east of McLean Boulevard and north of Bowes Road for an industrial park. The investment attracted two firms already in Elgin - Elgin Corrugated Box (1995) and Gibson Strings and Accessories (1996) - as well as Olive Can (1994), Harting Elektronic (1997), and TRACON (1996). The last named, an acronym for Terminal Radar Approach Control, began operations after six years of planning, construction and testing by the Federal Aviation Administration. TRACON controllers guide aircraft within a 50-mile radius of O'Hare, including planes using Midway and other fields.

One of the new firms along the Tollway made Elgin the photofinishing capital of the country. Qualex, Inc. located on the former Elgin airport property in 1993. The firm develops and prints amateur photographers' film dropped off at retail stores in the Midwest. Qualex, owned by Eastman Kodak, in 1996 purchased Crest PhotoLab, which had been operating in Elgin since the early 70s.

The 1-90 and Highway 31 interchange spawned motels: Super Eight (1990), Hampton Inn (1994), Budgetel (now Baymont) (1995), and the eight-story Crowne Plaza (1998). Combined, they added 495 rooms to the city's accommodations.

The city government participated in the construction activity, opening three new fire stations and adding an east wing to the Lords Park museum. To revitalize downtown, the city awarded facade improvement grants and abandoned the mall, opening South Grove Avenue. The Kimball Street bridge and corridor was widened to speed the flow of traffic, and the bike path was completed along the river. Police headquarters, operating in a cramped space in City Hall, was moved to a big new Law Enforcement Facility across the way on Douglas Avenue. Two gateway parks, Foundry and Newsome, were developed. A new bridge connecting Walton Island with the Civic Center was built and the shore line stabilized. More parking spaces were provided when the former First National Bank building was razed and the site paved and striped.

Private investment, with city assistance, converted the former Grove Theater into the Prairie Rock micro-brewery and restaurant. Two businesses moved into abandoned department store& Promac occupied the Joseph Spiess building, and Ackemann's - rehabbed into Highland Lofts -attracted R. R. Donnelly. The upper floors of the Burritt building, left unfinished when it was erected in 1914, were modernized. At the end of the decade the new Kresmery office building on Fountain Square was nearly finished and connected to the restored Kelly & Todd building, erected on Chicago Street in 1874.

The viciousness and severity of gang crimes escalated. Police identified five gangs: the Latin Kings, Black Gangster Disciples, the Latin Maniac Disciples, Vice Lords, and the Dark Side. More 15 and 16 year olds were carrying guns, and drive-by shootings multiplied, along with charges of burglary, assault, and vandalism. There were more than fifty homicides during the decade. Many of these were gang-related, including a triple murder at the Burnham Schoolhouse Apartments in 1999.

To reclaim neighborhoods from gangs-and drug dealers, Police Chief Charles Gruber assigned officers to reside in gang turf areas, and the city subsidized the operation of a recreation center. Security measures were adopted at the high schools. Visitors could enter only through one door, dean's assistants roamed the halls carrying two-way radios, and students were required to have picture identification cards dangling from neck chains.

Despite the gang problem, or perhaps because it was not uncommon in cities, Money magazine celebrated its 25th anniversary by organizing a series of personal finance seminars in Elgin. The city was selected because its ethnic diversity and blend of urban, rural and suburban influences. was a "mirror of America." That was probably a fair description of Elgin as the twentieth century drew to a close.

CHRONOLOGY: 1990 - 1999


1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999