Kane County Leverages its Diverse Economy

In a county with an incredibly diverse economy, robust farmland, bustling cities, quiet subdivisions and a diverse population, growth is driving success. Today, local leaders are working to create conditions for the future while balancing what makes Kane County unique.

Kane County’s administration office in Geneva sits in the middle of the well-developed Fox River corridor. It’s close to a traditional downtown, overlooks the river and is still a short drive from suburban development, new home construction and rolling farmland.

Kane County is a land of many contrasts, so naturally its economy is also pretty diverse.
The county’s eastern third is well developed, its major corridors filled with thriving business districts and century-old urban cores. In its western third, family farms and cornfields cover the rolling hills. In the middle is a mixture of quiet subdivisions, explosive construction and legacy farmland.

Kane County contains three “pillars” bearing unique economic priorities. Farmland to the west, small-town subdivisions in the middle and urban growth in the east make for an interesting blend of attractors to new businesses.

Chris Toth

It may seem as if these three areas have competing priorities, but in reality their residents and businesses share may interests, particularly when it comes to workforce, land use, transportation and housing.

For Chris Toth, a planner for Kane County’s Development & Community Services Department, the incredible diversity found in this county of 515,600 people adds up to a serious competitive edge. In fact, those contrasts are part of what makes this an epicenter of growth.

“We have 30 municipalities in the county, and they are all different, so when people look at Kane County, one of the challenges I have is giving them a buffet of choices,” says Toth. “Of course they’re going to look at Elgin or Aurora if they’re a big manufacturer, but businesses might also look to the Tri-Cities, or South Elgin or North Aurora or any of our other communities, depending on their needs. When you’re looking at us as a whole, it’s like you see a microcosm of the Chicago area.”

Leveraging its Advantages

Drive down Illinois Route 31 and you’ll see what Toth means. To the north and south, Elgin and Aurora are big, sprawling cities with urban cores, a diverse population, a wide housing stock and plenty of suburban sprawl. In between, there’s a mix of quaint communities, big-box outlets, park space, woodland and farmland.

(Click to Enlarge)
Kane County contains three “pillars” bearing unique economic priorities. Farmland to the west, small-town subdivisions in the middle and urban growth in the east make for an interesting blend of attractors to new businesses.

As Illinois’ largest city outside Chicago, Aurora holds about 179,000 people, most of whom live within Kane County. Elgin, with a population of 114,000, is Illinois’ sixth-largest city, falling just behind Rockford. Combined, the cities are nearly half Hispanic, with heavy numbers of Asian, black and multiracial residents, according to Census figures. Almost a quarter of these cities’ residents are immigrants.

Chicago’s location in the Midwest makes it an epicenter of transportation, with interstates and freight lines crisscrossing it in abundance. So, too, in Kane County, where trains ferry both cargo and commuters into Chicago and two major interstates – I-90 and I-88 – draw an ever greater supply of freight and travelers.

“And not only are we close to the major airports, but we have the Aurora Municipal Airport and we’re still close to the DuPage Airport, so there’s lots of connectivity for business leaders who want to come in and out,” says Toth.

While it enjoys many connections to the big city, Kane County is an epicenter of employment in its own right. An estimated 17% of the county’s 191,000 jobs revolve around manufacturing, thanks in part to large-scale producers like Sanfilippo & Son Inc., which produces Fisher’s Nuts in Elgin, and Suncast Corp., which produces home and garden equipment in Batavia. At least 10% of the county’s jobs revolve around health care, and another 12% support the retailers that feed residents’ and travelers’ needs.

Still more jobs center around two community colleges, two four-year institutions, a host of public and private school systems, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia.

The nature of work is important, but it’s also the lifestyle that attracts these workers and businesses.

“When I talk with people who are looking to move here with their businesses, we have a really great standard of living,” says Toth. “We have a lot of great recreation opportunities because of our natural resources and the Fox River. There’s a really good choice in the county, where you can have a really nice urban lifestyle or you can have a nice rural lifestyle and be close to both.”

Toth considers it a major attraction for prospective workers that the county holds nearly 21,000 acres of forest preserves, 300 miles of bike trails, almost two dozen golf courses, minor league sports teams and an abundance of activity on and around the river, which snakes through the county’s most populous communities.

“It’s amazing how you can go north or south and find something that you could want to do,” says Toth, a father of two young children who enjoy being outdoors. “I grew up in Michigan, and personally I love that I’m right next to the river, but when I want I can go east into DuPage County or Chicago and west out to a forest preserve where there’s nothing but fields surrounding it.”

(Elgin Community College photo)

Where the Action Is

Transportation remains one of the hottest sectors in Kane County. For the past five to 10 years, new manufacturing and distribution centers have been aggressively filling in vacant land around Interstate 90, particularly in Elgin, where an estimated 1.7 million square feet of industrial space went up in 2020, says Toth. The following year, more than 2.5 million square feet in new and existing space was leased to new and existing Elgin businesses.

“When I talked recently with Tony Lucenko of Elgin Development Group, he said they’ve built so much the city is finding it challenging to find space for new industrial projects,” says Toth. “That’s a great problem to have, but it’s created a challenge, too.”

In recent years, Amazon has set up warehouses in Elgin and Huntley just off I-90. New warehouses are popping up along Randall Road in Algonquin. And in Aurora’s interstate corridor, transportation, distribution and logistics firms continue to arrive.

“We’re almost to the point where some of our municipalities want to say, ‘That’s enough warehousing and transportation,’” says Toth. “We’ve had to deal with many growing pains from all of the trucks and all of the movement coming with them.”

Another major advantage for Kane County is the diversity of its workforce and efforts to keep those workers well-trained. Through Elgin Community College, Waubonsee Community College and the county’s Workforce Development Board, workers can access a wide range of training for some of the most in-demand occupations, including needs that are just appearing in the market.

“When marijuana was legalized, Waubonsee was one of the first around here to start talking about what kinds of programs were needed to train the workforce locally and fill those jobs,” says Toth. “And Elgin Community College has been great at looking at manufacturing. They’re building a new manufacturing center, but they’re also addressing other critically needed positions, like welding. They’re really adapting to changing market needs and providing workers for the industries that need them. It’s one of our strongest attractions for businesses.”

For as much focus as there is on big developments and transportation, small businesses remain an important part of the equation. In downtown Aurora, developers are revitalizing once-vacant properties and filling them with storefronts and apartments. Fueled by nearly $2 million in federal COVID relief dollars, the city’s public-private economic development initiative, Invest Aurora, is using a revolving loan fund to help businesses rebuild from the pandemic and invest in the future.

“I think in the past year or so they’ve helped more than 70 small businesses with their retention grant program and their Finish Line Grant program,” adds Toth.

He’s also excited about the Fabulous Fox! Water Trail initiative, which promises to infuse more tourism dollars into the county’s downtown districts. Currently seeking federal recognition as a National Water Trail, the Fabulous Fox trail would stretch from the Fox River’s origin in suburban Milwaukee through Kane County down to Ottawa, Ill., where it meets the Illinois River. The designation by the National Parks Service currently applies to 35 waterways, including the Rock River, the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. Toth anticipates the trail could become federally recognized as early as June.

“It opens up opportunities for funding and other notoriety, but basically it helps support what’s going on along the river,” says Toth. “With the pandemic, people really took to the river, and we saw more people out walking the trails and canoeing or kayaking. It helped our local businesses, particularly with food and beverage, and it supported all of the other things that attract tourism.”

With support from the nonprofit Fox River Ecosystem Partnership in Illinois and the Southeast Fox Partnership in Wisconsin, a website at fabulousfoxwatertrail.org features maps, lists of access sites and sample itineraries.

“This trail is pre-vetted and has all of the amenities and things someone is looking for in a water trail,” says Toth. “It makes the choice simple for people who are paddlers, canoers and boaters.”

Growing Prosperity on the Farm

It’s easy to take for granted the role that farms play in Chicago’s economy, but in Kane County it’s hard to ignore. While the vast majority of its population is concentrated to the east, nearly half of the county’s land mass – almost 170,000 acres – remains farmland.

The county’s 600 farms produce not just corn and soybeans but also livestock, wheat and specialty crops like those sold every week at the area’s farmers markets. Nearly 100 farms are larger than 500 acres, but the average farm is half that size, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And, the median farm is just 40 acres.

There’s a good reason why food manufacturing and food production are some of the hottest sectors in Kane County right now, says Toth. Much of it owes to changes that happened during the pandemic.

“As local foods become a higher priority for people, it’s driven businesses to look where those food producers are so they can be in proximity to transportation and other parts of their supply chain,” says Toth. “Kane County is a place where you can be close to food producers but you’re also close to the city. For manufacturers in food production, that’s the best of both worlds.”

Toth constantly monitors land use and countywide policy to keep development and agricultural priorities working hand-in-hand. He’s guided in part by the county’s long-range 2040 Plan, which lays out priorities for sustaining family farms, protecting the local food chain, fueling the local economy and enhancing residents’ health.

“We’re trying really hard to help our municipal and development partners to understand the importance of our agricultural land for food security, soil and water conservation, and overall sustainability,” says Toth.

The county board also plays a role, as its agriculture committee reviews policies that support and encourage area farmers.

“It’s a constant flow of information about what’s going on with our farmers,” says Toth. “That’s been great because it’s something that we’re always going to have as part of our county.”

Since 2001, Kane County has offered a unique Farmland Protection Program that permanently places farmland into agricultural conservation easements. Funded by a combination of federal dollars and revenue from the Grand Victoria riverboat casino, the program has spent more than $33 million over 20 years and protected nearly 30 family farms totaling some 5,000 acres.

“As a county, we buy development rights and then we take those development rights and dissolve them in perpetuity so that land must remain agricultural forever,” says Toth. “It’s an interesting program because it allows our farmers to get an influx of cash to continue doing their farming, and there’s a guarantee there won’t be any development of the land.”

How the farm of the future may look is anyone’s guess. More than a century ago, Kane County was an epicenter for the dairy industry, yet today there are barely a dozen dairy farms left. Instead, corn occupies nearly 80,000 acres – about half of the county’s cropland, according to the USDA.

One emerging trend is toward agritourism, where families protect their farmland with tourist attractions like pumpkin patches, corn mazes, breweries, distilleries and wineries. The concept is growing in neighboring McHenry and DeKalb counties, though it’s still catching on in Kane County. Still, that doesn’t stop thousands of people from converging upon places like Goebbert’s Farm, south of Huntley, Primrose Farm, near St. Charles, and Windy Acres Farm in Geneva.

“We have great soil, we have great farmers, we have a really rich tradition of farming,” says Toth. “And we want to make sure that is always kept in consideration moving forward.”

Seeing the Big Picture

For all of the good things happening in Kane County, Toth believes there’s one critical piece that’s missing: a dedicated economic development organization that serves the entire county.

“We’re just at a slight competitive disadvantage because we don’t have an organization that’s specifically supporting Kane County and its municipalities on economic development,” says Toth. “Elgin, Aurora, South Elgin and Montgomery all have their own teams, but most of our municipalities only have a single staff member or two.”

Things could change in the coming year as the pieces come together for a public-private partnership that can help retain, recruit and support businesses across Kane County.

The first step is a strategic plan that includes research and collaboration with potential partners. This nascent step is funded, in part, by $150,000 in Illinois COVID relief money, says Toth, and the effort has buy-in and support from similar organizations in DuPage and neighboring counties.

The effort is also benefitting from an infusion of cash through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, passed in 2021 as a means of post-COVID recovery. From that funding, $3.8 million is set aside for the future economic development organization. Another $1.2 million is set aside for the Fabulous Fox trail, $2.3 million for agricultural recovery and sustainability, and another $1 million for manufacturing.

Tourism is yet another target, for which the county is setting aside $1.6 million for new promotions, says Toth. The effort will draw in the county’s two largest visitors bureaus – Elgin and Aurora – into what Toth calls a “countywide partnership for tourism attractions.”

Through all of these efforts, collaboration remains a common theme in Kane County.

“A lot of people talk about how organizations work in their silos, and it’s important to bring everyone into the fold together to get things done,” says Toth. “We were inclusive before that word was being used a lot, because we have a habit of making sure everyone is part of the planning process. It’s really important, because what we’re doing affects everyone, whether the general public knows it or not.”

To further leverage its work, Kane County is teaming up with the new Greater Chicagoland Economic Partnership, an effort between the City of Chicago, Cook County and its collar counties. The idea is that, together, they can better market the Chicago area, share leads and collaborate on opportunities. The reality is that a win for one area is a win for all, says Toth.

Corinne Pierog

“The best way I’ve heard it described is like this: If a manufacturer comes into DuPage County, that’s a win for Kane County because that’s more potential visitors and it’s more potential residents,” he says. “This regional approach really opens up opportunities, and together we can learn things quicker, then adapt and respond to opportunities faster.”

Kane County’s board chair, Corinne Pierog, adds she’s excited to see the county leading the way in attracting business to the area.

“The pandemic changed the way companies operate and the way people work. Realizing that we are stronger together, we have committed to working smarter when it comes to business development and job retention by sharing assets and opportunities which will benefit Kane County in the local, regional and global marketplace,” she says. “Strategies developed through our future economic development council and regional partnership will make the county competitive and the results sustainable. The win/win for Kane County in 2023 will be the ability to have data-driven resources to attract new businesses, provide good jobs, provide a skills-ready workforce and support the workforce with an affordable place to live in the community where they work.”

Preparing for the Future

Kane County’s 2040 Plan and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s new On to 2050 Plan offer plenty of talking points for new policies and big ideas. But those are only roadmaps to the future. They can’t always anticipate changing conditions.

Housing remains an ongoing interest for leaders all across the county, particularly in what Toth calls the county’s “middle pillar,” located between Randall Road and Illinois Route 47. In places like Pingree Grove, Elburn and South Elgin, new single-family homes and townhomes are filling out the skyline at some of the fastest paces in Illinois. With costs starting around $350,000 on the lowest end, these new homes are comfortably above Kane County’s median home price of $255,900 and Elgin’s median of $207,000.

Even at those median ranges, young professionals and middle class workers may struggle to find decent housing that doesn’t break the bank.

“We know we have the lifestyle that attracts these workers, but we also want them to live here,” says Toth. “We want them to be a part of the community, yet our housing stock is low. Where I live in the Tri-Cities, the housing stock is also expensive.”

The question is even more acute in the county’s rural areas, where there’s even less housing stock and long-running family farms are struggling to engage the next generation. On these smaller farms, there’s a unique skill set and lifestyle that young people don’t always recognize or appreciate, says Toth.

“We’re trying to figure out how to best navigate people to the jobs we have here in Kane County,” he says. “If they want to be able to work on a farm, they need to be able to live close. You can’t take a train all the way out to farmland.”

The same could probably be said in the city. A strong, diverse and available workforce isn’t just good for businesses. It’s also good for the families that choose to make Kane County their home and their playground. It’s the old “rising tide lifts all boats,” and that’s an approach Toth believes will provide a winning formula for Kane County well into the future.

“We want our community to stay vibrant,” says Toth. “We want young families to move here. We want our schools full of kids. We want everyone to use the amenities here.”