Always the heart of this busy city, downtown Aurora is celebrating a new chapter in its story, as it welcomes increasing numbers of new visitors, and along with them, new attractions, small businesses and residences.
In a sense, downtown Aurora has always has been the heartbeat of this suburban community.
And lately, Cort Carlson finds that heartbeat has been pumping louder and stronger. Of course, even when shopping malls pulled people and businesses away during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, things got quiet, but downtown Aurora remained strong.
“There weren’t a lot of vacant buildings,” says Carlson, executive director of the Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There was no downtown blight of empty storefronts. But we didn’t have those destination-type stores and restaurants. There was just this migration away, especially for shopping. But what we’re seeing now is more development – a nationwide trend of migration back to urban centers.”
That trend is catching up with Aurora, where activity is reaching new highs. It’s most evident on Stolp Island, an area of roughly 0.03 square miles in the middle of the Fox River at the heart of downtown. This little land mass is a real hub of activity.
“It is certainly a unique feature,” Carlson says. “It gives us a lot of riverfront opportunities. We have river walks, fountains, plazas and gardens where you can hang out outside. And we have four riverbanks instead of two, which allows for more outdoors enjoyment.”
The island is anchored by the Paramount Theatre and the Hollywood Casino, two longtime staples that have been central players in the city’s rebirth. They’re joined by a myriad of shops, restaurants, museums and memorials, all working in tandem with the greenspace that hugs the riverbanks and welcomes many gatherings and festivals.
The Hollywood Casino, which was built at the northernmost tip of Stolp Island in 1993, brings hordes of people to downtown. Its nearly 53,000 square feet encompass 1,200 gaming positions, four dining choices and more than 1,000 slot machines.
To be sure, downtown Aurora’s renaissance has been the product of many years’ worth of small changes. But Carlson believes something fundamentally shifted in the years just after the recession, when Paramount Theatre launched its Broadway Series. Built in 1931, the theater has welcomed vaudeville shows, movies, musicals, plays, concerts and even a circus.
For decades it was a presenter house, each year bringing roughly 40 to 50 touring shows that would stop for a few days and then move on. But around 2010, the Paramount’s board of directors wanted more. It wanted bigger audiences, and it figured one way to do that was through self-produced shows.
Thus came Paramount’s Broadway Series, which today features four locally produced musicals every year. With shows like “Wizard of Oz,” “Les Miserables” and “West Side Story,” the Paramount team draws rising Chicago-area actors and produces grand productions that rival what you’d find in Chicago. The series has netted 55 Jeff Awards nominations and 18 wins, including three consecutive Best Musical awards.
Naturally, the crowds have followed. Paramount has seen subscriptions grow to more than 40,000, making it the second-largest subscription house in the country.
“It gave the theater a new life and downtown new life,” Carlson says. “Generally speaking, they are bringing in 350,000 people to downtown Aurora. It was always a beautiful theater, but before, they didn’t have the density or variety of shows that would draw from long distances and require longer stays. The Broadway Series does that.”
Tim Rater, president and CEO of the Paramount Theatre, arrived in 2010 to kickstart the Broadway Series. He humbly deflects credit.
“I definitely think things started to move before I got here,” he says. “There’s always been a vision for downtown. They were just looking for something to help trigger this growth.”
Rater credits a cooperative spirit in the community that he says helped to move the Paramount’s plans forward faster, all while advancing other initiatives to spur development.
“There was a lot of investment in downtown,” Rater says. “It showed how much the administrators believed in the heart of this city and the arts.”
Marissa Amoni agrees the stage was set long before 2011. As manager for Aurora Downtown, Amoni leads a nonprofit organization that started in 1975 and is made up of business and property owners who work with the City on improvements, enhancements and events that are funded by a Special Services Area tax.
“I think the people who laid the groundwork several years ago have been the true impetus of what we have today,” says Amoni. “It’s really been a true collaborative effort that has created a vibrant downtown.”
Guiding that vision was a master plan when it came to downtown infrastructure, gateways and streetscaping.
“From there, a lot of the growth for the arts was more organic,” Carlson says.
Since 1983, Balderas Beauty Salon has been a fixture downtown. Clara Diaz, who began working there in 1990 and bought the business in 2003, has enjoyed seeing the changes.
“It has grown a lot,” she says. “And in the past five years, it has gotten better and better. I can say my business has more than doubled in the past few years.”
She currently has two full-time and two part-time employees at the salon, “but if things keep going, I’ll need to get more people for work,” she says.
That’s the kind of success story Amoni loves to promote. “Downtown Aurora has always had a draw,” she says. “From the Carnegie Library, the Paramount Theatre and numerous department stores in its heyday to the Riverfront Playhouse, the Copley Theatre and hidden art galleries in the past 30 years, downtown has always held an appeal.”
Amoni grew up in Aurora and left when she graduated high school. She returned in 2006 with eyes open to the city’s potential.
“When I moved back, there was a lot happening,” she says. “There were things like the Aurora Art Walk and the MidWest Literary Festival before First Fridays, which started in the fall of 2013.”
Common among all of those happenings was a spirit of collaboration.
“I don’t think it was one entity that turned things around, but everyone working with everybody,” says Amoni. “It was a lot of people collaborating and making a really welcoming downtown. I think it was a lot of people working on a lot of things.”
There’s also been a dedication to support those priorities that can make downtown a true destination with a true identity.
“There’s definitely a focus and an intentional plan here that’s always evolving,” says Amoni. “We see what we already have, so how do we expand on this? A lot of the development the city is going after is staying in that same vein of thinking.”
New additions to the downtown expand upon this focus in many ways, including:
- A new river walk on either side of the Fox River.
- A bike lane that attaches to the Fox River Trails, creating a 60-mile path from the Wisconsin border down through Oswego to Yorkville.
- First Fridays, which occur the first Friday of the month from February through December (no July) and feature a night of art, music, dance and food at local businesses and venues.
- The River Edge Park with the River Edge Stage, an open-air venue along the riverbank that seats 8,000 and in summer brings big-name performers such as Gladys Knight and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. It also hosts other events like Blues Fest.
- Millennium Plaza, next to Leland Tower, which hosts a series of free summer concerts and events.
- And, of course, plenty of places to eat.
“Many of the restaurants are new – within four or five years,” Carlson says. “On New York Street is ‘Restaurant Row,’ and throughout downtown we have unique places like Ballydoyle, Gillerson’s Grubbery, U Samba and Two Brothers Roundhouse. And what we have seen in the past four years is a resurgence in independent coffee shops and boutiques as well.”
Tredwell Coffee opened in May 2018 and features a back patio on the river, giving it a European feel.
“We wanted to be a part of the transition of downtown Aurora,” says Andria Sosa, former co-owner of Tredwell with Chad Dawes. “Overall, with the changes that have come recently to downtown, they are making great strides. It’s giving Aurora a chance to get back on the map.”
And Tredwell is reaping the benefits.
“We had to grow our team because of the demand,” she says. “We exploded a lot faster than we thought. We have our regular customers that are our core, but we’re seeing even more people coming from the outside. We started with four full-time employees, but now we have six full-time and three part-time.”
Tredwell Coffee is joined downtown by newcomers like Wyckwood House, a woman-owned gallery of home decor, along with longstanding businesses such as The Hope Chest; the All Spoked Up bicycle shop; and If These Walls Could Talk, a custom frame store.
Among these businesses, you’ll hear a common theme of collaboration.
“We work very collaboratively with the city,” Amoni says of Aurora Downtown, which has bi-monthly board meetings at City Hall and periodic morning mixers that are open to the public. “We meet with the City on many different projects. It’s been a great relationship. And it’s important to us that everybody is kept in the loop, because we love the community and we want to make sure all the stakeholders and residents downtown have a say.”
“Sure, we focus on our businesses,” he says, “but looking at what’s best for downtown is always part of our decision-making. It’s part of our mission statement. For example, we didn’t have to do our Monday Movie series. It’s not a money maker. But it helps bring more people to downtown. It’s very much a conscious effort. We could charge more for some things, but that’s not what we want. We want to be inclusive, not exclusive. We all want to be accessible.”
And that universal cooperation is a big part of downtown Aurora’s success, even if there are no true statistics to quantify the growth that’s been happening this past decade.
“It’s more anecdotal,” says Carlson, who adds that the CVB doesn’t keep financial numbers to show the true economic impact of the downtown growth. “We look at things like foot traffic. We see how the restaurants are thriving. We’re seeing more interest from outside developers who want to get involved with downtown.”
Rater can speak on behalf of the Paramount.
“I had heard a statistic that for every ticket bought for a show, another $27.79 is spent in the area on other goods and services, like restaurants and shops,” he says. “And 84 percent of people who come downtown are from outside an Aurora ZIP code.”
Out-of-town visitors are likely to find plenty of new attractions upon their next visit. The City is currently constructing a pedestrian bridge that will connect the east and west sides of the river. It is expected to be finished by 2020. There are also plans to improve another park on top of the river bluff.
The Fox Valley Music Foundation plans to open The Venue on June 1, providing music offerings year-round. And the Aurora Farmers Market, the oldest farmers market in the state, is moving back downtown this summer.
Paramount Theatre, meanwhile, plans to open a performing arts school this summer, located in a refurbished building adjacent to the theater.
“That will bring a new audience and families,” Carlson says. “We wanted to create that artist community downtown as well. There are a lot of moving pieces. In three years, it will be an even more different downtown than it is today.”
On the horizon, expect to see more growth in residential opportunities as well.
“Some of the housing downtown, like the condos on the river, are coming back,” Carlson says. “That had slowed and stalled during the recession, but has turned around.”
Just to the south of downtown are a couple of market-rate condo developments along the river. Leland Tower, the tallest building downtown, has apartments, while Stolp Island Apartments offer senior living.
“And there are two more buildings being rehabbed for apartment living as well,” Carlson says. “They are undergoing updates and renovations and will also be market rate.”
And as part of the Paramount Theatre’s performing arts school, lofts are being developed for artists to live in.
“There is so much happening,” Amoni says. “We really have a collaborative community spirit. People are now taking notice. There’s a real synergy here, and you can hear it crackling.”