SPOTLIGHT ON EAST DUNDEE: New Shops, Theme Park Put Small Town on the Map
- 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 11th of the series, is written by Sengstock and profiles the village of East Dundee and Village President Lael Miller.
East Dundee is a small suburban town just north of Elgin that, at first glance, seems quiet and unassuming. But look a little deeper and you’ll see that this village has many hidden gems, and a vibrant background to boot.
Records of East Dundee go back as far as 1840. Unlike the popular misconception, East Dundee and its neighbor West Dundee were never unified, even though their history goes back quite a ways.
According to Village President Lael Miller, “From the very beginning, it’s been two towns. Our relationship with (West Dundee) is very good. We work very closely together on lots of things.”
For example, the two villages share a high school, and they also share events such as Heritage Fest and Dickens in Dundee. Because the villages are so tight-knit, Miller is quick to point out that there’s no rivalry here.
“Sometimes they take the lead on things, and sometimes we take the lead,” Miller said. “On the big events, we work as partners.”
Heritage Fest and Dickens in Dundee aren’t the only festivals East Dundee puts on for its residents. Motor Mondays and Wine Down Wednesdays are small local events that bring hundreds of visitors from all over Kane County. But these gatherings aren’t just fun: the crowds they attract also support East Dundee’s stores and restaurants.
East Dundee is still working on creating a diverse mix of businesses within its borders. Just a few years ago, Wal-Mart was one of the community’s biggest employers, as well as its largest provider of sales tax dollars. But then, the company moved out of town. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Wrong.
Since the loss of Wal-Mart, East Dundee has replaced the revenue that they had before. They’ve also added triple the number of jobs that they lost.
New businesses will soon move into where the Wal-Mart used to be, bringing over 200 well-paying jobs to the area.
“We’re focusing on economic development more than ever,” Miller said.
Of course, this isn’t the only time that East Dundee has made something great out of a potential setback.
In 2007, the historic Dundee Lumber building burned down. After its remains were bulldozed, the site sat vacant for several years. But now, a brand new development, 311 Barrington, is being finished on the lot. The downtown complex will include restaurants and shops, as well as apartments on the second floor.
“What you could see as tragic in some regards has turned into something so much better,” Miller said.
The same thing can be said for Santa’s Village, arguably East Dundee’s most famous tourist attraction. It’s been around since the 1950’s, and has been a steady provider of sales tax revenue for the town. But the business closed down almost 12 years ago. Companies tried to redevelop the property, but nothing really stuck. That is, until 2010.
A new company spent months rebuilding Santa’s Village until it looked brand new. The modern “Santa’s Village AZoosment Park” features unique rides and attractions, as well as some classics from decades past. The first year it reopened, it drew thousands of new visitors to East Dundee.
Miller loves the fact that “it brings people to town who wouldn’t normally come here.”
“It’s one of the last few amusement parks that’s geared toward young families and young children. You can bring your family there for a day for less than it would cost you to park at Great America,” he said.
It’s not just East Dundee’s businesses that draw visitors: natural resources also are a huge asset to the community. East Dundee is lucky enough to be located on the scenic Fox River. Residents use the river as a resource for activities like kayaking, canoeing and fishing.
The Fox River Trail is another great benefit to East Dundee’s location. It’s a 43-mile long path that runs through the town. Residents will tell you that the trail is the perfect place for running, biking, or just to take a nice stroll.
Overall, East Dundee’s president hopes that the community’s unique events, new buildings, and natural resources will put it on the map in the coming years.
“It’s a great place to work and live … I think we’re going to keep East Dundee’s quaint historic charm that we have downtown while we put in some more retail and sales opportunities,” Miller said.
East Dundee 2017
- Population: 3,182
- What makes your town unique?: East Dundee is off the beaten path, and its residents take pride in keeping its atmosphere old-fashioned. All of the stores downtown are independently owned. The beautiful tower of Immanuel Lutheran Church makes a drive down Main Street memorable.
- Most people don’t know: That the downtown area exists! Since the village is so small, it didn’t get much foot traffic until a couple years ago. With the revival of events like Heritage Fest and Dickens in Dundee, all of that is now changing.
- Places to visit: Fox River Trail, Dundee Tourist Center, Santa’s Village AZoosment Park
- Size: 3.01 square miles
Lael Miller got his start in East Dundee’s government after he spent a couple years on the Planning and Zoning Committee. He then served as a trustee for the village after the recession of 2008. About five years ago, Miller decided to run for the position of village president.
“I wanted to move some things in a different direction from before. I thought I had some good ideas as to how we could renew our downtown… it was very important to me to bring businesses here. I decided to run for village president, and to my utter amazement, I actually won!”
Now Miller juggles the responsibility of owning a resale shop with his duties as village president. His store is right across the street from Village Hall, so he’s often going back and forth between buildings.
Kind of like Clark Kent and Superman, Miller switches roles as soon as something happens in town.
“The village president job doesn’t really have set hours or times. Whenever stuff happens, I have to be available. When I need to be there for the village, I am,” he said.
Although Miller has a busy life, he’s gotten a lot done for East Dundee over the past four years.
Looking back at Google Street View from 2012, he said, East Dundee was a “ghost town” with many empty storefronts. Main Street looks much different now.
“Recently, we’ve completely remodeled the downtown area, and we’ve added a lot of new businesses and some renovations. I think that’s probably our biggest accomplishment,” said Miller.
About Village President Lael Miller
- Family members: Wife Connie and son James.
- Profession: Owner of a resale store in downtown East Dundee
- How long have you been a resident: Almost 20 years
- How long have you been Village President? 4 ½ years
- Favorite memory of East Dundee: One morning as Miller was driving to work, he took a detour down Route 72 for a change of scenery. “I remember driving down the hill from West Dundee to East Dundee one morning, probably around 7 p.m. The sun was bouncing off the church and the river, and I just really saw the beauty of this whole area,” Miller said. Ultimately, this moment was what made him decide to move to the village.
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