John Hamel had known about – and appreciated – the view for a while.
For years since moving to Batavia, Hamel had ridden his bicycle on the Fox River Trail past the restaurant building with the expansive brick patio, which allows those on it a chance to sip and dine with a view of the river flowing beneath the nearby Wilson Street bridge in Batavia’s downtown.
And it was on a such a leisurely bike ride on the river trail in 2011 that he noticed the restaurant operating there was about to close, and he decided to do what he needed to do to open his own eatery in that spot.
In July 2012, Hamel opened Pal Joey’s at 31 N. River St., linking the fate of his business, in part, to the quick-flowing river and its ability to draw people to its banks.
“In the summertime, especially, the river and this view is definitely the draw for this location,” said Hamel, gesturing with a wave toward the silent river from his seat at a black iron patio table. “The proximity we have to the bike path, and the stuff that goes on down here, it’s key.”
Hamel is just one of many Fox Valley business owners who have moved to tap into the rich vein of opportunities offered by the Fox, benefitting from the river and its associated trail, as recreationists and other passers-by discover the ambience of being near the water.
Like trying to calculate precisely how much water the Fox pushes through the Tri-Cities each day, local business and tourism promoters said the amount of money the river pumps into the local economy is difficult to ascertain.
But they know that the impact is significant.
“It’s got to be huge,” said Roger Breisch, executive director of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce. “Just go down to the bike path on any nice Saturday, and look at all of the people coming in and out of town, parking their cars in our towns and riding right through our downtowns.
“That alone has got to translate into a lot of business.”
River ‘integral’ to communities
The Fox River always has played a large role in driving the economy of the communities along it.
In the earliest years of European settlement, the river served as a watery highway, moving people and goods and fostering trade.
In the decades that followed, it became an energy source, powering mills and factories. And as suburbia sprawled into the county in recent years, there was a renewed emphasis on the ecological condition of the Fox River.
As the river’s health rebounded through the 1980s and 1990s, it became a more inviting place for all manners of recreation, including bicycling along the riverbanks, canoeing and kayaking its waterways, fishing from its shores and hosting days and evenings brimming with waterfront entertainment and dining.
And along with that flood of recreational activities, the Fox River also has brought a steady stream of money for local businesses and governments.
Amy Egolf, executive director of the Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Fox is “integral” to her office’s promotion of local tourism.
“People looking for destinations are drawn to water,” Egolf said.
The Fox River’s case to attract tourists is bolstered by “its ambience and beauty” and its abundance of recreational opportunities, Egolf said.
That’s what has helped keep businesses such as Rich Anderson’s St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats afloat. Founded in 1945 by Anderson’s father, Chet, the business has operated paddlewheel boat tours in the pool north of the St. Charles Dam from Pottawatomie Park in St. Charles north to the present site of the Red Gate Bridge.
Anderson said he caters primarily to local groups seeking a different view of the river, but also draws out-of-state visitors.
“My dad started this by buying a used boat and fixing it up,” Anderson said. “And over the years, we’ve bought bigger and bigger boats.”
Shore-based recreation also has flourished, thanks largely to the Fox River Trail and the public’s ever-growing interest in bicycling, walking and running its length.
Mike Brackett, owner of Pedal & Spoke bicycle shop in North Aurora, said he was among the first intentionally to locate his business along the nascent trail.
“The bike trail back then was just an idea,” Brackett said. “This was just basic riverfront, not much to it.
“Now, it’s a lot more people-friendly.”
And Brackett noted that, as interest in the riverfront has blossomed, so has his business.
“We’re now a destination,” he said.
Breisch and others said it’s difficult to calculate the economic impact of the river because it and the communities that surround it are inextricably linked.
Ellen DiVita, Geneva’s economic development director, said Geneva routinely uses the open space and the recreational opportunities available along the river in that community as a key aspect of its business recruitment efforts.
“It’s front-and-center in our community profile,” DiVita said.
Jean Gaines, president of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, said the river’s benefits are real, even if they’re not quantifiable.
“These benefits, maybe they’re something you can’t count, but we know it’s there,” Gaines said.
She and DiVita pointed to efforts in Geneva to redevelop and repurpose the former industrial buildings along the riverfront for use as restaurants, shops, offices and other businesses intended to draw visitors to their downtown.
Such efforts have also resulted in similar redevelopment in the downtowns of St. Charles and Batavia, making the sites more alluring for businesspeople.
Mark Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the Fox River is among the state’s key outdoor recreational destinations, accounting for a share of the more than $4 billion those destinations pump into the state’s economy.
“There is no doubt that recreation helps the economy and creates jobs,” Miller said.
Other forms of fun
Downstream, the river’s economic impact has been a bit easier to measure in recent years.
Two years ago in Yorkville, officials opened the Marge Cline Whitewater Course at Bicentennial Riverfront Park.
The course, created when the IDNR chose to modify Yorkville’s river dam and create a recreational amenity in its wake, offers local kayakers a chance to train not far from home.
The course has begun to draw attention from far and wide, said Laura Schraw, director of parks and recreation for Yorkville.
“As word spreads, we’re seeing more and more visitors coming down to our waterfront area,” Schraw said. “Which was really the point, for us.”
She said the increase in visitors has translated into several new businesses opening in Yorkville’s downtown, including restaurants and coffee and ice cream shops to cater to both out-of-towners and locals.
Similar ideas for artificial whitewater courses have been mentioned by officials or candidates for city office in other Fox River communities, including St. Charles. But, to date, no solid plans for such courses have surfaced.
In the Tri-Cities, local business owners, such as Hamel, have also welcomed the side effects of people playing on the river.
“This was really the reason I opened here,” Hamel said of the river. “If there’s another place in the Fox Valley that has this view, this ambience, I don’t know about it.”