- 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 eighth of the series, is written by Kramer and profiles the city of Geneva and Mayor Kevin Burns.
Geneva tops the charts in terms of the tourism industry in Kane County, but why does this town pull in so many visitors each year?
Mayor Kevin Burns says the secret is the perfect combination retro allure and forward thinking.
“We have retained our historic significance and charm,” he said in a recent interview, “while continuing to embrace and pursue opportunities that make us even better.”
The epicenter of Geneva lies in its iconic Third Street, which overflows with 150-plus small, independent businesses. Each season bears a different festival — from Swedish Days to Geneva Arts Fair to Festival of the Vine to the Christmas Walk and Holiday House Tour — that fills Third Street and the entire downtown area with tourists from all over the Chicago area and across the country.
Burns said Geneva hosts nearly half a million visitors every year.
In the summer months, Geneva buzzes. The Third Street coffee shop, Graham’s 318, is adorned with crowds every day, visitors travel great distances to see destination stores like The Little Traveler and the All-Chocolate Kitchen. A French farmers market is set up each Sunday, and on a perfect summer day, it’s easy to see the attraction.
“We brag that you can come downtown Geneva and feel like you’ve escaped, yet you still feel as if you are close to everything,” Burns said.
Small But Mighty
When people think of Geneva, they often don’t realize just how small it is. Flanked by “Tri-Cities” neighbors St. Charles and Batavia, Geneva consists of just eight square miles and takes up a mere three-mile stretch of Randall Road.
“Geneva is not big geographically, which provides a challenge and opportunity to ensure that what makes Geneva unique, what makes it attractive, special, deserving of attention, is that you don’t have to get bigger in order to grow,” Burns said.
With every new development project, the City Council has to consider how to make everything blend with the famed “charm” of Geneva. Burns refers to the city as a canvas, and every area of growth must be painted into the picture.
Although the development-approval process is sometimes frustrating to some people who want quick action, Burns said he is proud of the council’s “deliberate patience in considering new development so that it compliments what makes Geneva unique.”
“We want to be the best Geneva we can possibly be,” he said. “Often, it’s a difficult balancing act.”
Clearly, Geneva is a community with a lot going for it.
In addition to Geneva’s classic downtown and historic architecture, residents enjoy the scenic beauty of the Fox River and a plethora of parks including the 19-acre wetlands of Peck Farm Park and the gem of the Fabyan Forest Preserve. Geneva is the county seat, home of the Kane County Government Center and the Kane County Cougars minor-league baseball team.
The city has quality-of-life assets that a lot of small communities only dream about, including Northwestern Medicine’s Delnor Hospital, global businesses like FONA International and major nonprofit organizations like the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Transportation infrastructure is another strength, including a downtown station on Metra’s Union Pacific West Line with a recently completed the third deck of a three-level parking garage, three state routes (Routes 25 and 31 along the river and Route 38, named State Street in Geneva) and county arteries like Randall Road and Fabyan Parkway. Like other Kane County communities, it has easy access to I-88 and virtually borders DuPage Airport in West Chicago.
Voters approved construction of a new, $28.1 million Geneva Library this spring, and construction is expected to begin in 2018.
Plans For The Future
Geneva also has its challenges and goals.
At the top of the list is development of the former Mill Race Inn property along the Fox River, which has been vacant since 2011.
Its Downtown Station Area Master Plan, completed in 2012 and updated in 2013, calls for a number of creative city-planning initiatives including an emphasis on downtown residential development, bicycle and walking path additions and development or redevelopment in the River East Subarea.
‘De-Mystifying’ City Hall
When Burns came into office 17 years ago, he ran on the idea to open up local government for its citizens. He asked himself, “How do you de-mystify City Hall as a whole?” and allowed the answer to that question to guide many of the new programs he has put into place.
One of the programs is called “Art for All at City Hall,” which showcases student artists from Geneva schools at town meetings. Burns also started a partnership between city government and the student council at Geneva High School, which enables students to see how the local government works, up close. His mission is “letting the youngest and oldest citizens know City Hall is not just a building.”
Burns lives by the credo that you shouldn’t just live somewhere, you should get involved and do something. When he became mayor, he was determined to be involved in as many community events as possible. A prime example is this past Sunday, July 30, he was at Graham’s 318 as it hosted a celebration for Harry Potter’s birthday.
There was Burns, handing out goodies to the the Potter-crazed Genevans and laughing as he stated his purest motivation for attending.
“It’s fun to be present in the community,” he said.
7 Fun Things To Do in Geneva
Visit Island Park
- Explore Third Street
- Play Frisbee Golf or Mini Golf in Wheeler Park
- Go shopping in the Geneva Commons
- Walk along the river trail to St. Charles or Batavia
- Have breakfast at Buttermilks or Egg Harbor
- Have a cup of coffee at one of the many local coffee stores
Meet the Mayor: Kevin Burns
- Family: 3 daughters, Emma, Grace and Florence, one son-in-law, Aaron, and one granddaughter, Micah.
- Profession: Fundraising, for a variety of causes including the U.S. Olympic team.
- How long have you been a resident? 44 years.
- How long have you been mayor? Just started his 17th year.
- What is your favorite memory of Geneva? Moving to Geneva in 1974 and exploring the town by bike with his two friends, something Burns still loves to do.
- What are your greatest accomplishments as mayor? Being approachable and actively working to invite the community to participate in government as much as possible; “de-mystifying” the role of the City Hall.
- What do you hope your community looks like in five years? Burns hopes the community has grown without losing sight of its roots in five years.
- What are your favorite qualities of Geneva? How deliberate and patient it is in its progress, the “sound planning” of the town.
- Population: 22,000
- Top Employer: Geneva School District 304
- Year Founded: 1835
- Festivals: Swedish Days, Geneva Arts Fair, Concord D’Elegance, Festival of the Vine, Christmas Walk
- Most people don’t know: The movies Harry and Tonto, Novocaine and The Road to Perdition were shot in Geneva.
- What are some of the challenges facing Geneva today? Growing in a way that complements the established community.
- What are some of the top development projects in the coming years? Redeveloping old lots such as the former Mill Race Inn on the river.
- What makes Geneva unique? The town has retained its original charm, while still growing.
Read the Spotlight Series
- SPOTLIGHT ON ALGONQUIN: Scenic Beauty, Economic Growth Set ‘The Green City’ Apart
- 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