SPOTLIGHT ON ELGIN: Citizen Voices Truly Count With ‘City in the Suburbs’
- 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 ninth of the series, is written by Sengstock and profiles the city of Elgin and Mayor David Kaptain.
When most people think of Elgin, Illinois, they may think of the Grand Victoria Casino or the life-sized dinosaur exhibit in the Gail Borden Public Library. But according to Mayor David Kaptain, community involvement is also a big part of what makes Elgin so special.
As the second-largest city in Kane County and the eighth-largest city in Illinois, Elgin certainly has a wide-reaching government with a multitude of ways for citizens to participate.
For example, Elgin residents expressed their passion for sustainability by helping the city create an environmental plan back in 2009 that is still in use today.
“At first, we hired a consultant to write the plan. But when the report came back, it was 80 pages long and impossible for citizens to understand. So we fired the consultant,” Kaptain said.
“Then, we decided to have the community help us write the plan. We were expecting 10 people to come out, but we had 120 people show up. Now we have a Sustainability Commission, which is a permanent part of government.”
Education is a priority for the Elgin City Council and its constituents. A few years ago, Kaptain listened when local business owners told him that the city needed a better-educated workforce.
“We would like to work to create more options for young people,” Kaptain said. “College is not right for everyone after high school, but there are still good jobs out there for individuals who don’t have a college degree. We have more jobs available in Elgin than we have the people to fill them. We want to attract youth to those jobs.”
After the mayor talked to School District U-46 and other districts surrounding Elgin, the Alignment Collaborative for Education was born. The group has about 200 members comprised of business leaders and members of School District U-46. Its goal? A better workforce for Elgin.
ACE aims to get kids reading at grade level by third grade. Its members hope to offer middle schoolers information on career paths and make sure students graduate from high school. Inspired by the input of a few local residents, the organization is working to make the future of Elgin a bit brighter.
Looking Out for Each Other
It’s no secret that Elgin is one of the most diverse cities in Illinois, but the administration takes steps to bring its citizens together and make sure everyone is on the same page. One of these strategies it uses brings the Elgin government straight to the people.
“In my years as mayor, I’ve done neighborhood walks. Elgin police, firefighters, the city manager and myself go out to different areas of the city. We answer citizens’ questions and talk about their issues, because we want people to see that the government is willing to come to them,” Kaptain said.
Elgin started having Community Conversations a couple years ago to promote communication between the city and its constituents.
“After the shootings in Missouri, we met with the African American community to talk about violence, racial profiling and policing,” Kaptain said. “Recently, the Police Department has been talking to our Hispanic community about the fear of deportation and what the city’s role is. We really believe in going out and having discussions, letting the people take part.”
In addition to working with the government, locals are pretty good at helping each other out, too. In fact, Kaptain counts Elgin citizens’ willingness to work together as one of the city’s strongest assets.
“In my own neighborhood, we had fallen trees from recent storms,” he said. “People were out helping each other clean up, even new neighbors who had just moved in. It’s not unusual for Elgin. Sometimes the worst things bring out the best in people.”
Of course, every city has its challenges, Kaptain said, and one of the biggest for City Hall is balancing the budget.
When he first ran for mayor about seven years ago, Kaptain’s campaign was based on the idea that property taxes made up too much of Elgin’s budget. At the time, property taxes comprised almost 50 percent of the city’s funds. After he was elected, Kaptain worked with staff to create a plan to diversify revenue.
“We added other taxes, like a liquor tax, and taxes for electricity use and natural gas,” he said. “This allowed us to lower the (percentage needed for) property taxes.”
Today, Kaptain is still concerned about Elgin’s budget — just in a different way. Potential funding cuts in Springfield and Washington have a huge impact on what happens to Elgin’s residents who are on the margins of society, Kaptain said.
“These are our people, our residents,” he said. “Whenever funding is cut, I see people on the streets. We can’t suddenly stop giving assistance to those with mental health or poverty issues. There are still people we have to take care of.”
Updates and Upgrades
Nonetheless, Elgin is still in a very good financial position compared to other towns in the U.S. It’s a top-rated community for borrowing money, in the highest 3 percent of the nation.
This good credit came in handy last year, when Elgin borrowed $25 million to complete more street repairs and redevelopment than had ever been done in the city’s history. Elgin isn’t done catching up on infrastructure, though — it’s also working to finish the Elgin Tower Building, which will add about 50 units of living space downtown.
Soon Elgin will replace its Metra railroad bridge over the Fox River, which was originally built in 1881. The project, which will cost $80 million, will eliminate a bottleneck in the train track and will make commuter transportation more seamless.
Kaptain also has plans for the Fox River, explaining that about 50 years ago, Elgin turned its back on the river because people didn’t think it was safe. But now, the city is ready to reface the Fox and use it as a selling point.
“We built a great river walk and promenade for about $8 million to help refocus people on the Fox River. It’s going to become more of a recreational asset. We need to take something that was a liability 50 years ago and turn it into a great resource,” Kaptain said.
- Population: 112,123
- Year founded: 1835
- What makes your town unique?: Elgin is one of the most diverse communities in the United States. Its citizens vary widely in cultures, education levels, and even religious affiliations!
- Most people don’t know: Elgin has a vibrant arts community that has called the city home for over 50 years. Talented musical groups, such as the Elgin Symphony and the Elgin Master Chorale, put on beautiful performances to rival any large city’s orchestra. Kaptain claims Elgin is the epicenter of arts and entertainment in the western suburbs due to the wide variety of offerings available.
- Famous residents: Max Adler (benefactor of Adler Planetarium), former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, astronomer Jessica Mink (co-discovered the rings around the Planet Uranus). Check out 38 “Wow” Inductees in Elgin High School Alumni Hall of Fame.
About Mayor David Kaptain
- Family members: Married to his wife of 38 years.
- Profession: Retired employee of the Water Reclamation District in Elgin
- How long have you been a resident: Whole life
- How long have you been mayor? Six years
- Favorite memory of Elgin: Former Gov. Pat Quinn saying that Elgin was the best volunteer city in the state of Illinois. “We’re a volunteer-oriented community. I like citizen involvement and participation,” Kaptain said.
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
- SPOTLIGHT ON ST. CHARLES: New Development Projects Bring Vitality to ‘Pride of the Fox’
- SPOTLIGHT ON WEST DUNDEE: Village Renovates Downtown, Revitalizes Spring Hill Mall
- SPOTLIGHT ON GENEVA: ‘The Place To Escape To’ This Summer