Future-Ready in Woodstock

Sensing an explosion of activity to come, city leaders are embracing the future with transformative projects, high-tech infrastructure and a mindset that’s centered around Woodstock’s unique sense of place.

Real Woostock photo

Some say it’s too urban. Others say it’s too rural. Still others would say that’s one of the best qualities of Woodstock.

Its location in central McHenry County puts Woodstock right at the cusp of Chicago’s suburban sprawl. It’s just close enough to be connected with suburbia, but it’s just far enough that cornfields surround the city on all sides. This community commands a strong economy and a growing population of 25,630, but it also possesses plenty of small-town charm, especially in its Historic Square, where there’s a century-old opera house, an historical courthouse, a center green, lots of homegrown shops and a weekly farmers market that’s nationally recognized.

“Woodstock uniquely has something that a lot of communities are trying to build, and we have it innately with the Square,” says Danielle Gulli, executive director-business development for the City of Woodstock. “The historic buildings, the sense of place, those let you know you’re in Woodstock.”

For all of their hometown’s charm, local leaders see the inevitable march of progress heading their way. They’re not waiting around to see what it’ll bring or when it might arrive. Rather, they’re meeting the future and anticipating how their community might look 10 or even 50 years down the road.

Oncoming enhancements, including a potential new Metra railyard, the widening of Illinois Route 47, installation of fiber optic cables, and catalytic plans for the vacant Die Cast property downtown are just the beginning.

Last summer, telecom giant T-Mobile gave Woodstock a boost into the future. As the winner of T-Mobile’s Hometown Techover contest, the city is set to receive nearly $3 million in the form of a full 5G upgrade, internet service for select homes, a $250,000 grant and several other community enhancements.

City Manager Roscoe Stelford, Economic Development Director Garrett Anderson, Mayor Mike Turner, the City Council, and many other local leaders see this small victory as a catalyst for the future and a vindication of their forward thinking.

“When you look at the significant infrastructure projects that are potentially going to happen in Woodstock in the next 5 to 10 years, we need to have a strategy for how we will manage that growth,” says Gulli. “When things do happen, we don’t want them to feel disorganized and disjointed. So, we need to make sure we have the right strategies in place.”

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Strong Sense of Place

Stroll around Woodstock’s Historic Square and you get a distinct feeling you’re someplace special. Its collection of well-preserved buildings set a backdrop for weekly farmers markets, small businesses and even a Hollywood film.

It’s the sort of place where city meets country and locally owned businesses thrive.

“It’s created a space that’s great for entrepreneurs,” says Krista Coltrin, business and community development manager for the City. “That’s why we’re able to support local restaurants and niche businesses. We have a unique sense of place, so when people come here, they get local.”

Gulli and the City were already promoting that unique hometown charm when they heard T-Mobile was seeking a town just like Woodstock to receive a high-tech upgrade. So, the team turned their story into a pitch made especially for T-Mobile’s Hometown Techover.

“One of the key points was they wanted to see there was community engagement and that the whole community would support this,” says Gulli. “We had to show buy-in from leadership and all variety of organizations. So, Real Woodstock, the Woodstock Area Chamber of Commerce, the City and District 200 schools all worked together to get everybody engaged. That’s what stood out to T-Mobile.”

They went to football fields, classrooms, public events, the police station and even the City’s public works department.

“We basically said, ‘Choose Woodstock and here’s why,’ and we had all of the town leadership involved,” says Gulli. “We talked about the great things they would find coming here, why Woodstock is on the cusp of this tremendous growth, and what our future looks like.”

Last summer, T-Mobile announced Woodstock as the winner, besting Top 10 winners including Tipton, Ind.; Girard, Kan.; Dunn, N.C.; Guadalupe, Calif.; and Wareham, Mass.

With the win comes a full 5G upgrade to Woodstock’s cellphone towers plus the addition of two new towers. The telecom giant will also install a Wi-Fi hotspot in the Square, upgrade a local baseball field and host a summer concert starring Florida-Georgia Line. Additionally, T-Mobile has handed out Wi-Fi hotspots to more than 2,000 local students, primarily those who received free school lunches or were performing below grade level.

On top of all that, there’s also a $250,000 grant coming to Woodstock with a free consultation from Smart Growth America (SGA), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps communities to prioritize their economic development. For more than six months, SGA has worked with City staff to assemble data, explore the community and advise on where to invest that T-Mobile grant. Their big question: Where will that money receive the best return for your investment?

“One of SGA’s big things is that you want to target your investments,” says Gulli. “Our tendency is to serve a lot of masters and you want to give everyone what they’re asking for. So, a lot of times you see it sprinkled out all over. Their idea is that this approach is not going to give you as much impact as it would if you put it all into one place.”

In its analysis, SGA identified the Historic Square as Woodstock’s top hot spot, based on a number of factors including walkability and density of assets – historic buildings, city infrastructure and tax-generating business.

In their April presentation to the City Council, senior policy advisor John Robert Smith and vice president of economic development Chris Zimmerman made the case for why these areas matter so much.

“In Woodstock, 13% of the land is identified as hot spots, and that 13% generates 31% of the land value for the City,” says Zimmerman. “Another way of looking at it is, if you look at design per acre in these hot spots, it’s more than triple the value of the rest of the city, and that is not at all atypical. Most value is created in relatively few places.”

Citing a project he’d done in Meridian, Miss., Smith said that city’s new downtown train station created $168 of private-sector investment for every $1 that was spent on the station – and that’s only accounting for building permit fees.

By comparison, sprawling big-box shopping centers generate less income per acre, because more space is consumed by parking and other infrastructure. Recent generational shifts are bringing a renewed emphasis upon downtown areas, where people of all ages can live, work and play in close proximity and in an area that encourages them to linger. Walkability and bike access are in higher demand for commuting to work and general transportation.

Looking at Woodstock, Zimmerman and Smith found plenty of assets worth celebrating, and that includes the Square, the city’s historic integrity, ample parks, room for growth, transportation routes, walkability and arts destinations.

They also saw weaknesses that lead to opportunity – factors including affordable housing, retail and mixed commercial buildings, zoning modifications, pedestrian accessibility outside the Square, access to health care and hotels, and destination-type businesses.

SGA’s recommendations focused on eight specific points, starting with a comprehensive plan – something Gulli says was already underway when SGA arrived. Next, Smith and Zimmerman recommend investing one-time funds, like the T-Mobile grant, into specific projects that can maximize investment – and focusing that money near the Square.

The pair also identified a study on downtown parking, investment in pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and creating a sense of arrival into the city and especially the Square. Finally, they advised cultivating local businesses and engaging the community.

“You have a story to tell, and you need to capture it in an iconic way that’s purely Woodstock,” Smith told City Council. “I think that’s an important feature, and your community is so engaged and so positive during this whole process, so you are blessed in that. Keep them engaged. I think that energy is good.”

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Catalysts for Change

When local residents complain about the Old Courthouse on the Square, Coltrin understands. As the business and community development manager for the City of Woodstock, she recognizes the building’s nearly $17 million restoration is a hard sell to those who see it as a “money pit.” But she’s bolstered by SGA’s analysis. It shows that projects like the Courthouse have a catalytic effect.

“What we got out of Smart Growth America is that those are the kinds of buildings towns wish they had as the focal point, sense of place and historic pull to their communities. And we have it here,” Coltrin says. “Of course you have to restore it. Of course you have to go through the effort to facilitate that process and make it the focal point it deserves to be. We know we’re doing the right thing.”

Coltrin and Gulli believe the Old Courthouse and its adjacent Sheriff’s House will become a hub of activity when construction is complete next year. Current plans would bring a wedding venue managed by Ethereal Confections, a local business that runs a chocolate cafe and event center across the street.

MobCraft Brewing, a Wisconsin-based craft brewery, has committed to the front half of the Sheriff’s House, occupying the same building where Ethereal Confections will oversee an incubator kitchen for entrepreneurs. Incubator kitchens are something the City fields many requests about, says Coltrin.

The Woodstock Area Chamber of Commerce and Real Woodstock plan to set up offices inside; The Public House Restaurant will continue to operate in the lower level.

“We know if we invest in a certain way as was recommended, after painstaking analysis, SGA shows it can work,” says Mayor Mike Turner. “I absolutely look forward to the day when there are thriving businesses in there and hundreds of people are downtown on a Friday or Saturday night, so that every dollar we invested in that courthouse can spur more.”

As much as the Old Courthouse stands to spur new business, city leaders have their eyes on a much bigger potential catalyst, and SGA agrees. Since before the real estate crash of 2008, the city has sought ways to fill what it calls the Die Cast site, an 8-acre parcel just off the Metra station where a factory once stood. Multiple developer proposals have fallen through or been rejected over the years, but Smith believes it’s a prime target for something truly transformative.

“When you have people moving and coming through that space, you have greater potential for economic development in that space,” Smith told City Council this April. “You have a number of parcels that can be assembled there to do something very significant, and if you look at it in relation to the Square, it’s a very easy connection and it can make a seamless flow straight into the success of the Square.”

Gulli says there are several development plans on the table right now, but it’s still too early to announce anything final. She expects T-Mobile’s grant money will fund an interactive feature at the site, something like a fountain or a pavilion that would host public events.

“The important thing is to recognize what you have and expand and broaden it,” says Smith.

Although SGA considered several sites as potential “catalysts,” its recommendation of the Die Cast property was spurred in part by its proximity to the railroad. Metra is looking to relocate its railyard from Crystal Lake, and if that site ends up in Woodstock as proposed, Metra would add storage and a maintenance facility while also increasing efficiency and expanding capacity, says Gulli. Its cost of nearly $125 million would be funded in part by state money and federal infrastructure dollars.

“That could double our capacity for the city of Woodstock, giving us a lot more capacity for commuters,” says Gulli. “And with the Chicago Bears potentially coming to Arlington Heights, they’re really going to need that extra capacity on this line.”

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Gateway to the Future

Transportation expansion is a priority everywhere in Woodstock, not solely along the railroad tracks. Every day, some 19,200 cars pass along U.S. Route 14 between Crystal Lake and Harvard, according to Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). Another 25,000 cars pass through the center of town around Illinois Route 47, which carries travelers between Interstate 90 and Huntley in the south and the McHenry County Courthouse and Lake Geneva to the north. The road exceeded its planned capacity almost 10 years ago, says Coltrin.

“It’s become a bottleneck, especially for trucking when it comes to our manufacturers,” says Coltrin. “We also recognize how many people go to Wisconsin for summer months vacationing.”

This spring, Woodstock delegates were in Springfield, Ill., making the case to lawmakers that it’s time for a change. They’re pushing for funds that would make Rt. 47 a four-lane highway from Huntley to just north of Woodstock. It’s currently two lanes with mostly rural surroundings.

“They were referring to it as the next Randall Road corridor,” says Gulli.

And for good reason. Just as Randall Road exploded with growth during the 1990s and early ’00s, this corridor is one of the fastest-growing areas in Illinois. South of I-90, homebuilding is white-hot in communities like Pingree Grove, Huntley, Elburn and Yorkville. North of I-90, new developments are popping up in north Huntley and Lakewood. All of this adds up to additional strain from new drivers, truck traffic and especially first responders traveling between Northwestern Medicine’s Woodstock and Huntley hospitals.

One small step should begin within the next two years, when Woodstock’s busiest stretch of Rt. 47 is expanded to four lanes. Current plans call for an expansion between U.S. 14 and Illinois Route 120, a stretch that sees nearly 13,600 northbound/southbound cars daily. State funds have been secured; IDOT is finalizing designs and negotiating with landowners, says Coltrin. Plans include three new roundabouts: one at Lake Avenue, one at McConnell Road and one at Irving Avenue/Judd Street – a direct entry path into the Square.

Not only will the expanded roadway accommodate more vehicles, but it’ll also introduce pedestrian-friendly measures, such as bicycle paths and sidewalks, where such assets are historically absent.

“Walkability today is a huge factor in people buying homes and choosing where you live,” says Gulli. “I think the expansion is going to greatly improve accessibility and safety across a busy thoroughfare so it’s less dangerous for citizens. Connectivity between both sides of Rt. 47 is important to us.”

More importantly, Rt. 47 gives City officials an early opportunity to employ some of SGA’s strategies – especially relating to the group’s findings that Woodstock needs a better “sense of arrival” that draws people into the Square.

When Smith and Zimmerman visited the City this winter, they told Gulli about their travels from O’Hare along U.S. 14. They told Gulli they passed many towns that felt indistinguishable from each other.

“And they said, ‘When you get to Woodstock, there’s not good signage pulling you into the Square,’” Gulli recalls. “‘It would be easy to drive by thinking it’s just another town since there’s nothing to tell you there’s something special around the corner. They asked us, ‘What pulls you this way?’ So, that’s part of the comprehensive plan and these other measures where we’re considering how we grab peoples’ attention.”

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Visions of the Future

It’s only a matter of time before suburbia spreads to Woodstock. Gulli and Coltrin feel it, and they say Woodstock’s leaders feel it, too.

Right now, the city’s Planning Commission is reviewing national homebuilder Lennar’s proposal for a new neighborhood near the hospital. With 289 single-family homes starting in the upper $300,000 range, these initial concepts could turn into shovel-ready work as early as this fall, Gulli says.

“There are already parcels being developed on the south and east side of town, outside city limits, and you can already see the interest in sales of properties that can be another catalyst,” adds Coltrin. “The infrastructure improvements coming will be a game-changer for this community.”

Indeed, there’s a growing sense of anticipation, not only in Woodstock.

“I believe it was the CEO of Metra who was here and said that, in the next 10 years, he fully expects Woodstock to be the largest city here in McHenry County,” says Gulli. “That’s pretty powerful when you hear that. And then T-Mobile was here and made the investment, so that was our pitch to them, too: growth is coming.”

Preserving the City’s unique charm while embracing the reality of development is top of mind. The City was already reviewing its comprehensive plan when SGA stepped in; the City is now pursuing an arts plan to anticipate public art projects and a hotel study to better understand a growing need for hotels close to the Square.

Gulli believes T-Mobile’s investments in technology infrastructure can only help to attract businesses, workers and commuters – not to mention the visitors who want to use their phones to connect with others, pay for goods and more.

“We’re looking at everything from a comprehensive planning standpoint to say, how are we going to do this but still maintain our sense of place and our small-town charm, and all of the things people love about Woodstock today?” says Gulli. “We don’t want to lose that.”