Ottawa projects highlighted during State of the Cities, staffing first responders listed as ‘hurdle’

Mayor Dan Aussem was 1 of 6 mayors who spoke during IVAC event

(From left) La Salle mayor Jeff Grove, Ottawa mayor Dan Aussem and Princeton mayor Joel Quiram speak during the State of the Cities Luncheon hosted by the Illinois Valley Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, March 16, 2023 at Grand Bear Lodge in Utica.

Ottawa Mayor Dan Aussem was one of six mayors who participated in the Illinois Valley Area Chamber of Commerce’s State of the Cities event Thursday, highlighting several projects ahead for the city.

Aussem was joined by mayors Dave Stewart of Utica, Ken Kolowski of Peru, Jeff Grove of La Salle, Dom Rivara of Oglesby and Joel Quiram of Princeton in a Q&A session.

When asked about a hurdle the region faces, Aussem said staffing for first responders. He said he is working with lawmakers and lobbyists to lower the age to become a firefighter to 18. He said state law requires a full-time firefighter to be 21.

“I know with the trades we start recruiting students in high school,” Aussem said.

He is hopeful that if a law is passed lowering the age, local fire departments can start recruiting high school students who may be looking for a career.

Sharing the stage with five other local mayors, Aussem and his counterparts were asked how the cities work together regionally. The first thing that came to Aussem’s mind was the support Ottawa and Naplate received in 2017 in the aftermath of a tornado that damaged the communities. He said first responders from across the region helped Ottawa at no cost.

Aussem said Ottawa helped businesses in Naplate and Marseilles acquire grants during COVID-19 shutdowns.

He also said the North Central Illinois Council of Governments provides services for the region on a regional scale, as well as the Illinois Valley Area Chamber of Commerce, which hosted Thursday’s event. Aussem attends the La Salle County Mayor’s Association meetings.

The mayor said some of the communities have lost interest in regional economic development groups, noting that the groups are more powerful when there are more players to share resources.

Asked to list three positives from the community, Aussem cited breaking ground on a new $27 million YMCA along the city’s riverfront in a partnership between the YMCA, OSF and the city; construction of a new swimming pool; and receiving a grant to alleviate rail congestion in the city by moving a rail switch yard.

When prompted to list three challenges facing the community, Aussem listed three more positives. He said the city received a $506,000 grant to make improvements at Allen Park that include a walking trail, new shelters, gaming areas and handicapped-accessible fishing piers. He also said the city will build a new amphitheater along the riverfront and welcomed a new manufacturer, Coogee Titanium, which is an Australian-based titanium manufacturer he said brings $50 million of investment and 70 jobs to the area.

Robert Hasty, one of Aussem’s opponents in the city’s mayoral race, attended the luncheon. He said he was happy to hear of the positive projects across the city, but he was concerned about the planning behind many of them. For example, he said the city planned to build a municipal pool but only last week finalized a deal with the YMCA to manage it.

“That’s not how you operate,” Hasty said. “With every project moving forward, there needs to be a plan in place before spending $6.5 million.”

He said the riverfront redevelopment projects will need planning.

Leonard Newell, who also is running against Aussem in the April 4 election, said Ottawa has a host of opportunities to create a better quality of life. He said he would like to develop a plan for a sports complex, see the music and arts community embraced and enhanced, and build a new fire station on the north side of the city.

“I believe our challenges are poverty, building trades education and environmental issues,” Newell said in an email response Thursday.

Additionally, Aussem listed improvements at Dayton Bluffs Nature Preserve, work planned to install trails and a wetland at Harper’s Farm and the establishment of a 56-acre nature preserve at Nell’s Woodland as more positives. He said Heritage Harbor promotes the recreational activities with visitors who stay there.


Although Utica’s population is between 1,300 and 1,400, the village remains busy with visitors heading to Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks.

Stewart said the village established a new village hall in the former grade school that also hosts community events and serves as Heritage Corridor’s Visitors Center; received a grant to erect small retail business incubators in the vacant lots on the north edge of Mill Street; and also nabbed a grant to rewater the Illinois and Michigan Canal through the village through a pilot project, with berms being used initially to maintain the flow of water.

Stewart said he sees an opportunity for the village to grow north on Route 178 by Interstate 80 and Route 6.

He said the village works with other communities on certain projects, noting that he spoke quite a bit with Ottawa officials about rewatering the canal.