Elgin, Illinois: Crafting a Strong Community

Ambitious sustainability initiatives and a great appreciation of the arts makes this Midwestern town a great place you’ve (maybe) never heard of.
By Joe Hart
February/March 2011
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Elgin, Ill., has something for everyone: arts, entertainment, local food, recreation and more. 

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Located less than an hour northwest of Chicago on the banks of the Fox River, Elgin, Ill., was once a small but thriving industrial city famous for its watch-making factories. That industry has mostly gone, leaving Elgin with an opportunity to reinvent itself. They’ve added their very own opera, a symphony orchestra (twice-named “Illinois Symphony of the Year”), a cultural center that hosts concerts, theater productions and more, and a host of arts programs designed specifically for kids. This year, Elgin will break ground on 55 new housing units for Illinois artists and their families in a historic building downtown.

The town’s evolution has allowed the former industry and manufacturing sectors to maintain a presence, but this presence is now more balanced and distributed throughout the community.

“In its heyday, downtown Elgin was a hub of industry and manufacturing along the river,” says Jason Pawlowski, promotions coordinator for the Elgin Downtown Neighborhood Association. “We get comments all the time from former residents or visitors who tell us they expected to see a downtown resembling a ghost town, but instead found a vibrant, revitalized, walkable area.”

One of the centerpieces of that vibrancy is the Elgin farmers market, which Pawlowski directs. The market is restricted to growers and vendors from a 150-mile radius. “Our goal is to make it more than just a place to buy food,” he says. “We want it to be a public area where people can gather.” Pawlowski coordinates live entertainment, public art exhibits, food and wine tastings, and wellness and green-living demonstrations.

For a city of slightly more than 100,000, Elgin has a remarkable sustainability agenda. City leaders are currently finalizing a comprehensive sustainable master plan that will incorporate the social, economic and environmental objectives of its citizens into the city’s policy, development and culture. The city has a curbside recycling program; a storm water filtration project protects the water basin; city purchasing policies promote hybrid cars; and new utility buildings are LEED certified, while improvements to current buildings are made with green standards in mind. The city’s garbage transfer station is a certified LEED project, with a green roof and a graywater system. 

As with many sustainable communities, Elgin’s master plan also includes an addition to its outdoor recreation opportunities with the future expansion and connection of bike paths throughout the city. Pawlowski hopes plans such as these will help Elgin embrace its full potential for sustainability.

Stats: Elgin, Illinois

Population: 107,500

Median household income: $86,235

Weather: A four-season Midwestern climate with hot summers and cold, snowy winters.

What makes it great: Opportunities for all ages to enjoy the arts, an active local food market and an eye trained on a greener future. 

Check out the other towns featured in our 2011 installment of Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of. 

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1/6/2011 3:07:27 PM
I live near Elgin, and it certainly has its charms. There are so many beautiful, historic Victorian homes scattered throughout the city. The Watchtower is a beautiful building, and the Hemmens Auditorium (houses the orchestra) draws some great culture to the city. Yes, it is a pleasant city, however this article paints it out to be all peachy-keen, and it's not. There is a higher rate of crime in Elgin than surrounding communities and homes in many neighborhoods are dilapidated. The median household income figure seems a bit off, as many folks are living in poverty there. Like many cities in these times, it's in need of an economic boost to return it to its former glory. I am glad to hear of all the green efforts being made by the city; hopefully they'll be the leader for that trend in my area. Between those efforts and the farmers market, perhaps Elgin can turn itself around!

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