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Discovering McHenry

We visit McHenry, an historic enclave along the Fox River that some consider McHenry County’s hometown.

McHenry Mayor Susan Low has a good memory. She can recall when the town she grew up in had only 1,500 full-time residents. She’s lived all of her 57 years there, becoming McHenry’s mayor in 2003 after beginning her career in public office in 2001 as McHenry’s Ward 3 alderman.

In these days of transient workers and families, what’s kept her hanging around McHenry so long?

“The people are great; the Fox River is beautiful, and overall, it’s a wonderful place to live,’’ said Low, a retired special education teacher. “I’ve watched this town develop from a sleepy place to one that is vibrant and growing. The face of the town has changed so much with new residents, businesses and overall commercial appeal. I look at it as a well-kept secret.”

McHenry, situated along the Fox River and ten miles from the Wisconsin border, is home to more than 25,000 residents. Its quaint, peaceful aura has made it a popular tourist destination with an abundance of outdoor activities within a stone’s throw.

Unlike many Chicago suburban communities, McHenry has experienced rapid but balanced growth over the years. Mayor Low said one of her administration’s challenges is to maintain a small, hometown atmosphere while promoting the town as a recreational Mecca.

“We’re within ten miles of the Chain O’ Lakes and close to so many recreational opportunities, but we want to keep that intimate feel,” Low said. “We’re committed to controlling growth by limiting the building permits issued and working closely with other taxing bodies to make sure that too much residential and commercial development doesn’t have a negative impact on us the way it has in other communities.’’

Mayor Low said another challenge is figuring out a better way to move traffic through McHenry. Highway 120 and 131, which traverse the downtown districts, get jammed in gridlock at times.

“We definitely need to enhance our transportation system,’’ Low said. “There are times when traffic is at a standstill, and we have to come up with a more effective way of moving people through downtown.’’

Strolling Along the Fox

The city is in the final stages of planning the development of a mile-long river-walk along Boone Lagoon and the Fox River. The river is an important component to the personality of the town, and Low said it’s important to keep parts of old McHenry, such as the downtown corridor, vital.

“We have a strong restaurant base downtown, and it’s a constant challenge to make the best use of the waterfront,’’ Low said. “As a kid growing up here, a few spots downtown were all we had. Now there are more great places to eat and hang out.’’

Town officials have consulted with other city officials who have built similar riverfront projects. Some have even traveled to San Antonio to visit its famed Riverwalk, in hopes of getting ideas and gaining some perspective.

“I sometimes think, ‘What does Lake Geneva have that we don’t have?’’’ Low said. “We’ve got shops, water, scenery and places to eat. We’ve got many parks, more than 1,000 acres and natural wetlands. Lake Geneva has a more recognized name and history, that’s all.’’

The Road Ahead

McHenry City Commissioner Doug Maxeinel welcomes the task of implementing the vision of Mayor Low and the City Council to help McHenry progress in the future.

“If you looked at McHenry ten years ago, you never would have figured it could have such significant growth while keeping its community identity and the heart and soul of the downtown area intact,’’ Maxeinel said. “We don’t want to be just another bedroom community for Chicago. There are a lot of them around already.’’

The commissioner shares the mayor’s philosophy of caution in managing growth, saying they would prefer to have no more than 300 new homes a year.

“We consider ourselves McHenry County’s hometown,” Maxeinel said. “People come back after being away for many years and say that although the town is larger, it still has the same community spirit. We’re in a transition time in which the county is tempted, quite frankly, to become a bedroom community. It’s a temptation that needs to be resisted.’’

McHenry actually has several distinct downtown areas, Main Street; Green Street; and Riverside Drive, and all three feature quaint specialty retail shops as well as service-oriented businesses. Maxeinel said that since the northern end is the main retail area, the major focus will continue to be on the downtown area.

“Like a lot of communities of this size, we have visions for the future, but we don’t want to forget about our past,’’ Maxeinel said. “The future looks very bright for McHenry.’’

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