By Ted Schnell • BocaJump
Downtown Neighborhood Association President Karin Jones admits that carnivals in Elgin’s Center City seem to have run their course as fundraisers for the organization.
But they remain a viable interest in the eyes of local nonprofits, Jones said Monday, and they help make the downtown a hub of activity when they operate, drawing residents into the area to walk around, perhaps visit a business or two while they’re out having fun.
Jones said she has worked as a volunteer at the carnivals, she has visited them with her family and has had fun doing so, all the while watching others have fun as well.
She added she takes her family to carnivals in other towns as well, pointing to the annual Scarecrow Festival in downtown St. Charles and Hampshire’s annual Coon Creek Country Days.
But the longtime downtown businesswoman said she is puzzled that the idea of having downtown carnivals suddenly came into the spotlight during a June 8 Elgin City Council meeting.
“I do not understand why politically it became a hot button,” Jones said.
On June 8, Councilman John Prigge asked the rest of the council to consider placing the matter on a future council meeting agenda. Prigge wants the council to place limits on carnivals in the Center City. He questioned whether the downtown area is the best place to hold a carnival or whether people who visit the carnivals also visit local businesses. Further, he said some downtown businesses believe their commerce has suffered because of the carnivals, which he noted also create problems for owners of private parking lots in the area.
It is uncertain whether Prigge is alone on the council in his concerns.
Of the six other members, only three responded to an email from BocaJump. Two indicated they do not support restrictions at this time, A third said she is undecided but is doing her own research on the issue.
Jones noted the downtown area carnivals are not new. Originally, they were held at the parking lot of the old Gail Borden Public Library along the Fox River, immediately south of Kimball Street.
At that location, she added, the carnivals were more successful as DNA fundraisers. She attributed that largely to a location that was very visible, particularly to traffic on Route 31, and likely drew impulse visits – folks who happened to be driving past and stopped because they had children in the car who saw the rides and wanted to go.
Despite the benefits of the location, carnivals there did create problems – disrupting traffic and parking for The Centre of Elgin to the east, the new Gail Borden library to the north, and to Hemmens Cultural Center to the south..
So the DNA moved the event, Jones said, but subsequent locations just did not draw the same level of visitors, which diminished the effectiveness of carnivals as a fundraising endeavor for the DNA. But the events were embraced by local nonprofits for their fundraising potential, and Jones said the nonprofits ought to be able to continue the carnivals as the DNA did.
“It’s a different kind of event and requires special planning,” she said. “The police department’s recommendations were very helpful.”
She pointed to St. Charles, which has its own downtown carnival as a part of its annual Scarecrow Festival. And on June 8, the same carnival company that had been in downtown Elgin just a week or so earlier was running one in downtown St. Charles as part of that community’s annual Riverfest, according to Elgin City Councilman John Steffen.
“At this point I don't see a need to further limit carnivals,” Steffen wrote in a June 13 email to BocaJump. “We have addressed possible safety issues by requiring carnivals to be fenced in and that attendees purchase tickets. If these rules do not work I would be willing to consider others. If the number of carnivals grows too large, I would consider a limit. I don't believe we are at that point.”
Councilwoman Anna Moeller wrote in a June 18 email that she is exploring the issue. “I haven't formulated an opinion on this yet. I am doing some research to find out how other communities handle this.”
Councilman Robert Gilliam was out of town; Councilman Richard Dunne and Councilwoman Tish Powell did not respond to BocaJump’s email inquiries.
Elgin has had downtown carnivals in three of the past four years, and during one of those, concerns arose about kids loitering around the area. That particular year, Jones said, the wrong kids showed up, but they were not there for the carnival.
“There have always been concerns about loitering by kids,” Jones said. “But the police department made some suggestions …”
They’re the same suggestions Steffen referred to in his email, and the same ones City Manager Sean Stegall cited during the June 8 discussion that Prigge initiated.
That ended the problem, Jones said.
“It’s a safe event,” Jones said “My family and I went to the last one and we had a great time.”
Yes, there have been problems from time to time, Jones said, but issues frequently arise during any large gathering or event, including the BrewFest and Fox FireFest, also downtown-area festivals. There is so much going on, and so many different activities and people to coordinate that issues sometimes arise.
But that does not mean they are not safe or that they should be discontinued or limited, Jones said, adding she continues to volunteer at such events and take her family to them because they are fun and enjoyable.
Mayor David Kaptain agrees.
In a June 13 email to BocaJump, Kaptain said he has not heard any complaints from people he’s talked to about downtown area carnivals. When he visited the downtown festivities with his wife, Sandy, in May, “I saw many young people having fun and doing what teenagers do. Sandy and I shared a funnel cake and talked to a number of the people in attendance ... There were no reported incidents during the evening and the police officers present were pleased with the event. My sister and brother-in-law volunteered ... I asked them for their impression. They said that the crowd was made up of parents and younger children having an afternoon out. I ask you, is any of this a bad thing?”
And that’s quite a change in a downtown area that not too long ago was in serious trouble.
Jones said her father moved his business downtown 14 years ago, when gang problems remained a significant threat and Elgin’s effort to revitalize the area was in its infancy.
Since then, the Elgin Police Department has made progress against street gangs, businesses have made improvements to their facades, old buildings have been torn down and replaced. And people are no longer afraid to come to the Center City in the evening.
“We should be very proud that anybody wants to have anything downtown, because 14 years ago, that was not the case,” Jones said. “This says great things are happening in our downtown.”