SPOTLIGHT ON ST. CHARLES: New Development Projects Bring Vitality to ‘Pride of the Fox’
- Editor’s Note: This summer, Kane County Connects interns Annabel Sengstock and Lizzy Kramer are putting the spotlight on 26 Kane County communities, from burgeoning Aurora to serene Sleepy Hollow, looking at each community through the eyes of a civic leader. This article, the sixth of the series, is written by Sengstock and profiles the city of St. Charles and Mayor Ray Rogina.
Nowadays, Mayor Ray Rogina spends much of his time in an expansive office in the heart of the Municipal Building, the iconic tower that overlooks the Fox River in downtown St. Charles.
But when Rogina came to the town 40 years ago to student teach, he dreamed only of one thing: becoming a high school educator. He never would have guessed that eventually he’d be sitting behind the mayor’s desk.
Rogina has seen the town grow and change drastically over the past decades. He’s been around to see his former high school students get jobs, have children and even retire. One of his former students, Clint Hull, ended up becoming the judge who swore Rogina into office as mayor.
Rogina has also witnessed St. Charles double in population, experience a huge housing boom on the west side of the Fox River, and become a vibrant business and cultural center.
“A lot of the west side of St. Charles used to be cornfields,” Rogina said. “I mean, Randall Road used to be a two-lane road.”
But some aspects of the city, like its unique architecture, have not changed. And Rogina says that’s a good thing.
“It’s funny how some things have remained, like the Arcada (theater). Or the Baker Hotel. Or even the Municipal Building. When I drove through St. Charles for the first time, those buildings stood out to me. The city was a lot smaller. But the thing is, they still stand out today, after all these years,” the mayor said.
In addition to its distinctive buildings, Rogina counts a prime location on the Fox River and proximity to Chicago as two of St. Charles’ greatest assets. Residents get the best of both worlds: easy access one of the world’s great urban and cultural centers, and expansive forest preserves and parks virtually in their own back yard.
Fiscal Wins — and Losses
St. Charles officials take pride in fiscal responsibility. Rogina said the city’s diverse tax base was one of the reasons St. Charles was able to survive and ultimately thrive following the recession of 2008.
“This town wasn’t nicked as hard in 2008 as many other communities were,” he said. “No city employee was let go, which we are very proud of. Some things came to a standstill, but I think we covered it very nicely.”
Since then, St. Charles hasn’t asked for a property tax increase, Rogina said, underlining that less than 10 percent of a resident’s property tax bill goes to the city. Rogina said his predecessor, Don DeWitte, was committed to holding the line on property taxes, and Rogina has worked with the City Council to stick to that same principle through his two terms.
While St. Charles has done a good job of maintaining its finances, Rogina says that in the past two years, one of the city’s biggest financial challenges was imported from Springfield.
“The absence of a state budget for over two years created a financial cloud over our town,” the mayor said.
St. Charles relies on Illinois to distribute money that taxpayers have sent the state, and Illinois’ budget problems have in recent months cut off cash flow for city services.
Even today, St. Charles is still working to fill some of the gaps that the recession of 2008 caused. Nine years ago, many businesses closed, but the city has put in extra effort to fill empty storefronts and vacancies in the community. Fortunately, many business people are finding St. Charles an attractive place to set up shop.
Even the former Charlestowne Mall — now called The Quad — on the East Side of St. Charles has found new hope as of late. The once-vibrant mall took a turn for the worse in the past decade, after online shopping rendered many brick-and-mortar stores obsolete. Today, though, a new Cooper’s Hawk restaurant is attracting more customers to the area.
If You Build It, They Will Come
And St. Charles officials don’t plan to stop there. In the coming years, they hope to focus on residential construction instead of retail — and Rogina says there are many ideas in place to make this happen.
“The owners of the mall have presented a new plan to the City Council. They want to reconstruct the mall and add retail, apartments and townhouses, while maintaining the stores and movie theater that are already there,” Rogina said.
Only time will tell whether this plan will be acted upon, but it presents an interesting solution to the Charlestowne problem.
The St. Charles City Council also just approved the construction of Prairie Center, another apartment and business complex to be built on the site of the old St. Charles Mall. Bordering Randall Road and Route 38, this plot of land has sat vacant for over two decades.
St. Charles is also close to finishing several important long-term projects. Take First Street, for example. Over the past 15 years, St. Charles has worked to turn a large parcel of land bordering the Fox River into a residential and shopping center. Construction on the site stopped in 2008, but the city is extremely close to completing the complex that is a key element of downtown development.
“We’re trying to create a perfect balance of residential, service, entertainment, industrial and retail buildings in this community,” Rogina said. “Right now, we need a diversified tax base, so that means more residential.”
New specialty retail stores, like a new saddle shop on Main Street, are finding homes in St. Charles, and the many car dealerships lining Route 64 provide needed sales tax revenue for the city.
10 Years Out
Rogina sees downtown St. Charles a decade from now as a continually thriving, vibrant area.
“I already consider St. Charles to be a serious restaurant town. And I would be very happy if that designation developed even further. In the next 10 years, my dream is that people won’t have to go into Chicago to have unforgettable experiences. They can find those experiences in downtown St. Charles,” Rogina said.
In addition, the mayor aims to keep St. Charles a great city to raise kids. He is very proud of the town’s 2011 title of Best Place to Raise a Family, awarded to St. Charles by Family Circle magazine.
He also hopes that children who grew up in the city will return to the community after they become adults.
“I want high school and college students to view St. Charles as the place they want to live the rest of their life,” he said.
St. Charles 2017
- Size: 15.02 square miles
What makes your town unique?: St. Charles is a very giving community, not only because of the hours its citizens work as volunteers, but also because of the money the city donates to charitable causes. “As part of our tax levy, we give over $500,000 a year to mental health causes. Our taxpayers have voluntarily chosen to do this,” Rogina said.
- Famous residents: Entertainer Donnie Wahlberg, actress Jenny McCarthy, actor Ethan Cutkosky
- Most people don’t know: When the city was first founded in 1834, it was originally called Charleston; it had to be re-named St. Charles five years later because there was already a Charleston in Illinois.
- Top employer: St. Charles School District 303
About Mayor Ray Rogina
Family members: Married to Diane Rogina and father of one son, who is an attorney.
- Profession: High school government teacher
- How long have you been a resident? 43 years
- How long have you been mayor? Four years
- Favorite memory of St. Charles: Getting to know students at St. Charles East High School — and then remembering them as adults years later!
Read the Spotlight Series
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- SPOTLIGHT ON BURLINGTON: ‘Small-Town America With a Big, Big Heart’
- SPOTLIGHT ON AURORA: New Mayor Hopes to Bring Innovation To ‘City of Lights’
- SPOTLIGHT ON BIG ROCK: Improving the Quality of Life in Rural Kane County
- SPOTLIGHT ON ELBURN: A ‘One of a Kind’ Town