Things are waking up in downtown McHenry, where once-sleepy blocks are witnessing a steady stream of newcomers, and attractions like the Fox River are garnering increased attention. Talk to the right people, and you’ll hear about a destination finally coming into its own.
McHenry native Kim Loewe remembers the days when downtown McHenry was the main hangout. She reminisces about feeding ducks with day-old bread from the Hostess shop and buying smiley-face cookies at Riverside Bake Shop*.
Things got quiet here during the 2008 recession, but Loewe has a daily reminder that her hometown is turning around. Loewe’s homegrown bakery, Kiera Confections, is right in the middle of a growing hot spot for family entertainment.
“We had a really strong sense of belonging and a strong sense of community, and it’s really starting to come back,” she says. “That’s what makes McHenry special, and what makes it home. I’m so honored to have my family, friends and business here and to be a part of it.”
Loewe is excited to see a renewed interest in growth and revitalization efforts happening all around her, and she’s encouraged to see new business popping up along once-quiet streets.
“I’m really excited for the growth of downtown,” she says. “Any time where you’re just standing still is a step backwards, so forward movement is always good.”
This city of roughly 30,000 people is in the midst of a makeover, and it’s not just limited to downtown. But the change is especially noticeable in the river district, where the streets are blossoming with new businesses and exciting entertainment options. There’s a sense that things are starting to turn around.
This city deserves a downtown to be proud of, says Kay Bates, executive director of the McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The people of McHenry are very giving and very accepting,” she adds. “We have some good people in this community.”
A Bustling City
Nestled along the Fox River, toward the base of the Chain O’Lakes and a short drive from the Wisconsin border, McHenry boasts a wide variety of assets. Toward its outer limits sit quiet subdivisions, big-box shopping districts and industrial enclaves. At its heart sits an active riverfront that bears a wealth of timeless properties.
While some neighboring communities have one downtown district, McHenry’s has three distinct zones, all centered around a fork in the river, and each with a scattering of retail shops, restaurants and entertainment.
Ask anyone downtown, and they’ll tell you the river is truly the face of the city. Its clear, rushing water is a natural feature that’s becoming a backdrop for fun.
“Other villages and communities would die to have what we have,” Bates says. “That river is our greatest asset. People will swim, boat on the river, dock on the river and use our restaurants as time moves on. It’ll only get bigger and better.”
The Riverside Drive area is a well-established business district north of Illinois Route 120 with buildings abutting the river.
There’s also the Main Street area, located about a half-mile from the river along Illinois Route 31. It has several restaurants and shops, as well as a Metra station.
Then, there’s the Green Street area, which stretches south of Illinois Route 120 toward the river and Boone Creek. Green Street, in particular, has become ground zero for the downtown area’s revitalization.
On Green Street, the McHenry Riverwalk quietly snakes its way along Boone Creek toward the river, in wintertime passing frozen boat docks and warm townhomes overlooking the water. It’s a place where, even on a cold day, geese wander and people enjoy a stroll.
At the Riverwalk’s entrance is a project that has locals buzzing about the future of their entire downtown. The McHenry Downtown Theater delivered three cinema screens last year after sitting vacant for nearly a decade.
“If you were to see this theater before it was renovated, it needed a lot of work,” says Doug Martin, the city’s director of economic development. “I’ve been with the city for more than 17 years, and the theater has opened and closed multiple times. People have always said they wanted the theater back because they wanted a presence of a downtown theater.”
McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett, who also owns a heating and cooling business located downtown, helped bring investors together on the $2 million cinema. He was elected to office in 2017.
“I got the right people to get in and get that theater opened,” Jett says. “There were 26 local investors who were willing to be part of it, but no one was willing to spearhead it.”
Jett believes the key to a successful community starts with a lively downtown, which is why he’s been focusing his efforts on the Green Street area. He estimates the theater is bringing an additional 300 to 400 people downtown each week.
“In the past, you’d go down there and you’d see just 10 cars on Green Street,” says the 35-year-old McHenry native. “Now, you can’t get a spot on Friday and Saturday, and even during lunch. There have been bars and restaurants that have been here for so long, and I think financially, they’re starting to see more of a return.”
Loewe, whose business is located just south of the theater, right on the other side of the Riverwalk, has also noticed an uptick in traffic, not just in her store but in longtime community staples such as Miller’s Dream Marine, Black Orchid Boutique, Bimbo’s, Little Chef and Plum Garden Restaurant.
“They’ve been in business for multiple decades and have seen McHenry through many changes,” says Loewe. “They are active participants in the community and downtown events, and they’re reinvesting their time and money now.”
‘Our Greatest Asset’
Now that people are returning to downtown, the next plan of action is to keep them coming back. Community leaders believe it begins and ends with the river.
“The river is our greatest asset, and it’s also something we’re finally building on as a community,” Bates says. “The Riverwalk is important because it helps in the redevelopment of our downtown area.”
Jett expects big things this year as a private investor brings the shuttered Watertower Marina back to life. The marina, located at the north end of downtown, across the river from Riverside Drive, has been closed for about eight years.
“The developer has a plan for 110 boat slips, a 40-unit condo and eventually, a marina and restaurant,” Jett says. “He knows there’s opportunity on the river and he has half of those boat slips already sold. That’ll be 110 boaters and their families coming to McHenry and spending money downtown.”
Jett says the boat slips promise to draw more boaters and visitors to that portion of the river, because there’s nothing else quite like it downtown.
“This developer is putting in new pier walls and new piers,” Martin says. “He’ll open up for the spring boating season, and the condos will come in after that. We’ll be meeting with him in the future about food options.”
Back on Green Street, Woodstock favorite D.C. Cobb’s is now serving up gourmet hamburgers and a view. Located within the theater complex, this restaurant has a rooftop deck that overlooks the Riverwalk and Boone Creek.
“That’s the first location anywhere in the area with rooftop seating,” says Dorothy Wolf, economic development coordinator. “Now, new businesses that come in will want rooftop seating, as well. A coffee shop on the Riverwalk with outdoor or rooftop seating would be amazing.”
Jett is already looking at ways to tap into the Riverwalk’s endless possibilities. He envisions a future when downtown businesses have outdoor dining along the Riverwalk and other attractions are stationed there, too.
“I really want to expand the riverwalk, but that’ll cost another $1.5 million,” he says. “It’ll be worth it if other businesses are willing to re-develop their properties, too.”
A Wealth of Attractions
The renewed energy in McHenry is starting to be felt by locals and out-of-towners alike.
“We’ve definitely seen a shift,” says Jaki Berggren, executive director of Visit McHenry County. “It’s gone from a place where people drive through to a place where people want to come and visit. It’s becoming a destination for people, and things are definitely moving and happening.”
With good things happening downtown, other local attractions stand to benefit, too. Jett sees downtown as a springboard for things to come.
“The biggest thing I promised, when I ran for mayor, was to redo the downtown, and once it becomes vibrant, it’ll help other parts of the city to flourish, too,” he says.
Then again, this community is already flourishing in a number of ways. Numerous summer festivals happen around the city, none bigger than Fiesta Days, an 11-day event that includes a carnival, live music, an art and street fair, a parade and a car show, for starters. The event typically involves multiple locations around the city during mid-July.
“In recent years, Fiesta Days has been really big because of the new additions downtown,” Wolf says.
Just last year, the Chamber of Commerce added another new festival to keep people downtown The ShamRocks the Fox event, expected to return this year on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, involves plenty of mucic, family-friendly activities and a green-dyed Fox River, reminiscent of festivities in downtown Chicago.
“People are staying,” Wolf says. “It’s really exciting, and it’s good to see McHenry growing.”
Just at the edge of the Main Street business district, the Prairie Trail brings cyclists and hikers through town. The 26-mile recreation trail runs from the Wisconsin state line down to Algonquin, where it meets up with another trail ending south of Aurora. The Prairie Trail connects eight McHenry County communities.
“It’s a great opportunity for folks to bike throughout the county and visit the town of McHenry as well,” says Kristine Austin, sales & marketing manager for Visit McHenry County.
McHenry’s location also puts it within a close drive of several municipal parks and conservation areas, including Moraine Hills State Park, Volo Bog and Glacial Park.
On the far northeast edge of town, the Golden Age Cinemas McHenry Outdoor Theater brings in families all throughout the summer for drive-in movies, attracting both locals and out-of-towners. The outdoor theater’s owners also have a stake in the new downtown cinema.
Looking to the Future
Jett is pleased to see improvements happening around the city, but he has his eye on lots of other projects for the coming years.
The biggest complaint he receives from his neighbors involves parking downtown. It’s a good problem to have, because it means there are more visitors, but it’s an issue local officials are still working on.
Jett imagines one solution is to offer a trolley service.
“That’ll get more people to the downtown area, and from there the service can web out to other parts of the city,” says Jett. “But, it’ll take some time.”
Bates imagines a future for McHenry where downtown is redeveloped, vacant properties are occupied and the Riverwalk is a major attractor for visitors and businesses. But, every good thing has to start someplace.
“The residents and businesses in the community have a new burst of enthusiasm,” Bates says. “These are exciting times for McHenry, and I’m excited.”
* This article has been changed from its original form. Riverside Bake Shop is still serving customers on Riverside Drive, as it has since 1971.