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Sugar Grove ‘on the cusp’ for growth

In part two of its three-part series, the Elburn Herald takes a look at the current state of Sugar Grove, and the individuals set to lead the village into the future

SUGAR GROVE—When Sugar Grove Village Board member Mari Johnson and her husband Kevin came to Sugar Grove in 1987, the population was less than 3,000. There were regular community events, salad luncheons through the Methodist Church, the Fire Department’s annual pancake supper, as well as the Sugar Grove Corn Boil.

“It was everything you would expect in a small town,” she said.

Mari and Kevin liked what they saw. There were opportunities to volunteer, and ways to get involved as much or as little as you wanted. Many of the people they met during that time were also new to the community.

“You literally knew almost everyone in town,” she said. “We knew it was a place we could stay, a place where you could make a difference.”

SG_5K She and her husband jumped in with both feet. They started attending the Sugar Grove Community Club meetings, and soon were helping out with the Corn Boil for the coming year.

Through their children’s involvement in sports, they got involved with the Sugar Grove Baseball Association. Kevin started coaching with the T-ball team, and began helping out with the annual 5k run. Eventually he would serve on the Park District Board.

Mari was elected to the Village Board, where she will soon celebrate 20 years as a village trustee.

“I love it here,” she said. “I’m so glad we came to Sugar Grove.”

Sugar Grove recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the village’s incorporation. The “old timers” scheduled their reunion to coincide with the celebration, and Sugar Grove Village President Sean Michels addressed the group.

“This is a great attendance,” Michels said. “If I can just say two words, ‘Thank you.’”

Michels told the group that the decisions they had made 50 or more years ago set the tone for the ones that are made today. He said it made him proud to represent the village of Sugar Grove. He added that he and others are trying to do things today that will make the residents proud 50 years from today.

“It’s a testament that a number of kids that I graduated with have moved back here,” he said.

Michels, a Village Board trustee in 1997, was elected to the position of village president in 2001. He lives in Sugar Grove with his wife Valerie and their four children.

Sugar Grove has seen significant growth since the turn of the century. In just the 10 years between 2000 (census 3,936) and 2010 (census 8,997), the village has more than doubled.

Although growth came to a standstill after the economy took a nosedive in 2008, things are beginning to move again.

According to Michels, Sugar Grove is once again poised for growth.

“Sugar Grove is right on the cusp, to transition from a small town to a medium-sized community,” Michels said.

Johnson’s questions, similar to those many Sugar Grove residents are asking, is “How much growth is good?” and “How big can the village get, and yet retain that close-knit feeling?”

“It gets harder and harder to do,” she said. “The village is more spread out, there are more people, there’s more going on. It’s kind of a balancing act.”

Johnson said that there have been a number of positive additions to the town in the past 10 years or so. Jewel-Osco and Aldi coming to town has been “huge,” she said.

“Now people spend most of their food dollars here in town,” she said. “That’s really important.”

McDonald’s coming to town was also a big deal, especially to the younger residents.

Michels likes to tell the story that when he would teach Junior Achievement at the Kaneland John Shields Elementary School, the most-asked question he got from the students was, “When are we going to get a McDonald’s?”

“We tried for years (to get McDonald’s to come to Sugar Grove),” Johnson said.

She said that McDonald’s had looked at four different sites over the span of 15 years before they finally decided to build in Sugar Grove.

“Demographics are so important,” she said. “It’s all a numbers game. Now the owners tell me it’s the busiest place they have.”

Residential growth is also beginning to move forward again. Construction in the Prairie Glen subdivision across Route 30 from the airport, which had come to a halt during the downturn, is once again seeing new homes go up. There are also plans in the works for senior and assisted living apartments, so that as people get older, they can stay in the community.

Sugar Grove will soon have its own Ace Hardware store, also a huge milestone for the town.

Johnson said she is proud of the way the village has managed development, making the improvements to the infrastructure, including water quality and the sewer system, that are necessary to support growth.

Village officials also created architectural requirements for development, so they could hold developers to high standards for buildings.

“We wanted to make sure that what was built was something the village could be proud of, something that would stand the test of time,” she said. “It’s a good feeling.”

Millie Molitor, who moved to town in 2002, said Sugar Grove still feels like a small town to her. She knows a lot of people in her neighborhood of Windsor Pointe, and she feels there is a sense of community there.

In addition, she said she has met many great people through her pet-sitting business.

“It’s a great community,” she said. “I’ve met some incredibly wonderful people. It seems that when there is someone who needs something, so many people rally together. It’s quite amazing.”

In the time since she and her husband have been here, she said she has seen a lot of changes for the good. The road improvements, such as Galena Boulevard and Municipal Drive, have been a positive thing for business growth, and she said that the village is looking at other ways to bring more businesses to town.

Residents do feel that they have a stake in the game, and are not afraid to make their opinions known. Several years ago, when Raging Waves was considering locating its water park in Sugar Grove, the Windsor Pointe community came out in force. After 13 hours of public comment, mostly against the water park locating across the street from the subdivision, Raging Waves decided to set up shop in Yorkville instead.

Molitor feels that Sugar Grove is growing at a good pace without overdoing it.

“Everybody wants the tax relief, but nobody wants to be another Randall Road,” she said.

Community involvement continues to be a hallmark of everyday life in Sugar Grove.

Sugar Grove resident Mary Ochsenschlager, after a lifetime of advocating for environmentally sensitive growth through her position on the Kane County Plan Commission and educating the general public through her work with the St. Charles Park District as its first naturalist, is focusing her talents and energy closer to home.

Ochsenschlager leads monthly workdays in Bliss Woods, where she and other volunteers work to clear out invasive plant species such as buckthorn and garlic mustard that are threatening to crowd out the area’s native wildflowers and woodland grasses.

According to Ochsenschlager, Bliss Woods is one of the finest remaining remnants of Kane County’s natural forests.

“This ecosystem serves as the home to native birds, butterflies and other mammals, many of which people never see and do not even know that they should care about them,” Ochsenschlager said. “It’s a living museum.”

She said the workdays are an opportunity for rigorous exercise, a chance to meet others who share the love of nature, while she and others are helping to maintain an area with an interesting natural, cultural and geological history.

She has also joined the Sugar Grove Park District Board, where she contributes her time and talents.

Karen McCannon, who moved to Sugar Grove to join her husband many years ago, said that she had to learn about volunteerism from her husband’s family.

McCannon, along with many other ways of contributing to her community, was one of the women who created and distributed a local newspaper beginning in the 1970s.

McCannon as "JoJo" (in yellow)
McCannon as “JoJo” (in yellow)
More recently, McCannon has taken her volunteering in a particularly joyous direction: she went to clown school and became a clown. Jo-Jo, as she calls herself, has brought her clown ministry to her work with the Sugar Grove United Methodist Church, as well as spending many Saturday mornings making children laugh and painting their faces at the Sugar Grove Farmer’s Market.

Jo-Jo’s legacy also includes, together with her grandchildren, leading a bicycle parade for the Fourth of July. Her “Clown Victoria,” a golf cart decked out in red, white and blue, has become a staple for the Fourth of July in Sugar Grove. Her granddaughters, Alyssa and Sammi, whose idea it was for the parade in the first place, are accepting the baton to carry on as Jo-Jo’s health concerns make it difficult for her to continue.

Together with McCannon, her grandchildren are also regulars at the Between Friends Food Pantry, created by Melisa Taylor, another Sugar Grove leader and volunteer.

Taylor’s children, Madison and Danielle, are also at the forefront of her work with the food pantry. They came up with the idea for the food pantry after some very successful food and clothing drives in several Sugar Grove neighborhoods. The food pantry has taken off since its inception in 2009, with many neighborhood people, as well as businesses, volunteering and making contributions.

Although Sugar Grove has grown, it’s clear that volunteerism is not only alive and well, but is also being carried on by the children.

“Volunteerism is what builds community,” Oschenschlager said. “People who volunteer are invested in their community.”