Many years ago (back in the misty eons of time), I was a student at Illinois College. Having come from Chicago and the suburbs, it was quite a transition to “small town America.” But in four years, I learned to love that small town atmosphere and to embrace the slower-paced, know-everyone lifestyle. Many times over the subsequent years, whenever the question of, “what period of your life would you like to live again,” was mentioned, it was always those four years that formed my answer. When it came time for my daughter to choose a college, I encouraged IC and Jacksonville as the ideal place for her. And Mom was right!! She loved it as much as I did, and after completing her Master’s Degree at ISU, she returned to Jacksonville for a year as a part-time French instructor at both IC and Mac Murray. Since we both still have friends in the Jacksonville area, we are frequent visitors to the town and the IC campus.
After college, I returned to the western suburbs of Chicago in the Du Page county area. We finally settled in Naperville after all three children were born and lived there for the next eighteen years. In the mid-70’s, my neighbor/best friend and I decided to start a business in downtown Naperville. At that time, Naperville was a sleepy little city of about 28,000 residents, with a very small town atmosphere (it reminded me of Jacksonville!!) As business owners, we knew every one in town and spent many hours on the retail council trying to preserve and grow the downtown area. All this in a era of explosive growth and mega-malls. It was no small undertaking, and we became fixtures at meetings and events as our business grew and prospered.
Naperville is blessed with a very progressive city government and a boat-load of beauty and charm. The Du Page River bisects the downtown area, and for years was just a trickling body of water, mostly ignored by the general public. But those of us involved with local business knew that we had an untapped treasure on our hands and it needed development. Beginning in the late 1970’s, local businessman Jim Moser, along with architect Charles Vincent George and Mayor Chet Rybicki began considering the development of a small area of the river as a Sesquicentennial gift honoring the founding fathers of Naperville. It didn’t take long for the rest of the business community and the city council to get excited about the project. The 150th birthday of the founding of Naperville was in 1981 and it was decided that the Riverwalk would be community funded with matching funds up to $200,000 provided by the city. The community raised over $500,000 and contributed goods and materials in addition. Citizens of Naperville could also take part in the construction by helping with landscaping and brick work. I clearly remember small announcements in our local newspaper, the Naperville Sun, announcing that on a particular Saturday, help was needed to lay bricks on the walkways. It truly was a community project. And then, as the saying goes, it took on a life of it’s own, and the rest is history. Today the riverwalk is still funded through donations, and has a governing non-profit foundation, and it continues to grow each year. The park district is responsible for maintenance, and city government also provides significant funding. It now stretches for miles throughout the city and has bike paths, parks, recreation and a world renowned carillon. I have no idea how many hundreds of thousands of visitors there are to the riverwalk, but I have been there on many, many occasions with multiple busloads of tourists. The Riverwalk has garnered interest from all over the world and I remember hearing that the Japanese government was sending a group to study how Naperville made this such a successful project.
I applaud you Jacksonville for recognizing the potential treasure you have, and while the scope may be much different from Naperville, I think you will be amazed at the excitement this babbling brook can create. And what better legacy can we leave future generations than to create something beautiful from a community’s hands, heart and spirit?
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