Sauk Valley in review: A look at 2023’s top stories

Dixon’s first open business at the Gateway Project site kicked off Friday, Dec. 29, 2023 at 10:30 a.m. Chipotle Mexican Grill opened to excited fans and steady sales.

DIXON — With the year 2023 just one day from its end, we look back at some of the memorable events that happened in the Sauk Valley each month this year.


State Rep. Brad Fritts makes history as youngest elected member in General Assembly

State Rep. Brad Fritts made history in January as the youngest elected official sworn into the Illinois General Assembly. The 23-year-old Dixon Republican was elected in November 2022 to represent the redrawn 74th House District, which includes parts of Lee, Whiteside, Ogle, DeKalb and La Salle counties.

Bradley Fritts

[2022 primary election: Fritts wins 74th House District]

State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, was sworn in to a fourth term in the Illinois House, officially taking the reins as the first woman to become House Republican Leader. McCombie’s 89th District contains portions of Boone, Carroll, DeKalb, Jo Daviess, Ogle, Stephenson and Winnebago counties.

State Sen. Win Stoller, R-Germantown Hills, took the oath of office in the historic House Chamber of the Old State Capitol, marking the beginning of the new 103rd General Assembly. The redrawn 37th District contains all or parts of Bureau, DeKalb, Henry, LaSalle, Lee, Marshall, Ogle, Peoria, Rock Island, Stark, Whiteside and Woodford counties.


Former state Rep. Tom Demmer to head Lee County Industrial Development Association

Former state Rep. Tom Demmer became the new executive director of the Lee County Industrial Development Association. Demmer replaced Kevin Marx, who has served as executive director for the economic development organization since 2018. Marx also is director of business development and spokesman at KSB Hospital.

Demmer represented the 90th state House district for a decade. He was deputy minority leader in the House and was chief budget negotiator for the House Republican caucus. He also previously worked at KSB Hospital as director of innovation and strategy.

[View a gallery of Sauk Valley Media’s top news photos of 2023]

Dixon City Council OKs $4.8 million infrastructure work for Gateway Project

The Dixon City Council in February approved a $4.8 million contract for the Gateway Project infrastructure buildout.

The Gateway Project is a commercial development expected to bring gas stations, restaurants and hotels to the Interstate 88 corridor. The 27-acre site along South Galena Avenue across from Walmart between Keul and Bloody Gulch roads broke ground in April 2022 with the plan to construct a dozen buildings.

[Realizing the vision: Gateway Project breaks ground in Dixon]

Site work to level the ground started shortly after but was delayed because developers had to redraw plans to accommodate a second gas station. The council approved final amended plat lines for the project in September 2022.

Ground work at the YMCA Child Care Center in Dixon moves ahead Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023 at the Gateway Project site.

It’s being developed by Xsite Real Estate of Burr Ridge and Walsh Partners of Elmhurst. Xsite is the developer of Presidential Parkway Plaza, the four-building project north of Walmart along the south side of Keul Road. The city, the Lee County Industrial Development Association and Sauk Valley Bank also are partners in the project.

In 2021, the council approved annexation agreements across 657 acres, including land for the Gateway Project, after years of working with landowners and developers to open up new opportunities in the area.


Dixon council approves funding for summer street work

The city geared up for $1.15 million in street resurfacing during the summer of 2023.

The Dixon City Council approved using $490,000 in motor-fuel tax funds for the annual roadwork project as well as $50,550 for an engineering contract with Fehr Graham Engineering and Environmental.

The rest of the project was covered with the city’s half-percent infrastructure sales tax funds. The city has been spending at least $1 million on its annual street resurfacing program following a few years of larger resurfacing projects to catch up on previous years.


Marshalls, Old Navy and Five Below coming to old Kmart in Sterling

Three national discount retailers – Marshalls, Old Navy and Five Below – would open in Sterling Crossings, the former Kmart building, this fall, the developer announced in April.

That will leave one 15,000-square-foot space in the main building, and four other outlying buildings, three yet to be built, for restaurants, offices or other retailers, developer Chris Williams said at a short groundbreaking ceremony in April.

Justin Jacobs of Smart Signs, Rockford, lines up the letter "a" on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023 for the new Marshalls store that will be opening in the Sterling Crossings retail center in mid-November.

Williams, owner of Highlands Development LLC of Kansas City, Missouri, bought the building at 2901 E. Lincolnway for $1 million about three years ago.

On Aug. 1, 2022, the City Council passed economic incentives for Williams, who plans to spend $14 million to redevelop the 100,000-square-foot site in the East Lincolnway business corridor.

Glen Hughes wins race for Dixon mayor

Glen Hughes became the city’s next mayor after winning nearly 56% of the vote. Hughes led the polls with 1,154 votes, or 55.88%, compared to 911 votes and 44.12% for Dennis Considine, according to unofficial Lee County election results with 100% of precincts reporting.

Dixon mayor-elect Glen Hughes takes a call after the numbers show he won the race Tuesday, April 4, 2023 in Dixon.

He will replace Mayor Li Arellano Jr., who didn’t seek reelection after two terms.

[Dixon mayoral candidates weigh in on issues during forum]

Incumbent council members Mike Venier and Mary Oros ran unopposed to retain their council seats.


Sterling’s first Latina mayor takes the gavel

Sterling’s first mayor of Latin heritage took the oath of office in May.

Sterling native Diana (Vasquez) Merdian, also is only the second woman to serve as Sterling’s mayor. She took the place of Skip Lee, who decided not to seek a fourth term.

Diana Merdian is sworn Monday, May 1, 2023 as Sterling mayor.

It wasn’t her first run for office: Merdian, who defeated Alderman Jim Wise, sought the 1st Ward post in 2015, but lost to incumbent Retha Elston.

Joe Strabala-Bright also took the oath of office in May. Strabala-Bright ran unopposed for the 2nd Ward seat. Aldermen Wise, Elston, Josh Johnson and Joe Martin also were sworn in; the latter three also ran unopposed.

Park District executive director named Dixon Citizen of the Year

Duane Long was named Dixon Citizen of the Year for his dedication and leadership that brought a community center to town.

Long, who became executive director of the Dixon Park District in 2018, was recognized with other award winners during the annual Best of Dixon awards gala.

Under Long’s leadership, the district has built several park improvements in the last few years, including The Facility community center, the Water Wonderland splash pad, the inclusive playground at John Dixon Park, the zip line playground in Lowell Park and the ice rink in Page Park during the winter.

Clara Harris, president of the Goodfellows of Lee County, was named Volunteer of the Year for her commitment and positive impact on the community. Ace Hardware & Rental was named Business of the Year, and owners Rich and Kathy Kelly were honored for their contributions to Dixon.

The annual 4 Under 40 awards were presented to Caroline Arnould, Stacey Barber, Seth Nicklaus and Kent Sorenson. Rachel Burdette was named Chamber Main Street Ambassador of the Year for “passion, commitment and tireless efforts” to the organization and the community.

‘Mark Dallas Way’ honors former officer who thwarted Dixon High School shooting

Dozens of community members in May celebrated the actions of retired school resource officer Mark Dallas, who averted tragedy at Dixon High School five years ago.

Mark Dallas (left) accepts a replica sign from Dixon Mayor Glen Hughes and Board of Education President Linda Wegner Tuesday, May 30, 2023.

A portion of Lincoln Statue Drive was dedicated “Mark Dallas Way” after local and state leaders praised his selfless response on May 16, 2018, when then-19-year-old student Matthew A. Milby Jr. opened fire inside the school at teacher Andrew McKay with a 9 mm semi-automatic rifle as he was heading toward the gym. The gym was filled with more than 180 seniors rehearsing for graduation.

Dallas pursued Milby outside of the school, was shot at and returned fire, striking Milby twice.

In April, former school board member and retired Dixon police Deputy Chief Brad Sibley requested that the board designate part of the street as “Mark Dallas Way.” The Dixon City Council approved the honorary title from Peoria Avenue to Chuck Vale Drive.

[Dixon High resource officer, son speak about shooting]

Milby pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated discharge of a firearm and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Sauk Valley communities win $2.1 million in grants to revitalize blighted sites

Almost $2.1 million in federal grants will be going to environmental cleanup efforts in Sterling, Dixon and Rock Falls for redevelopment projects years in the making, it was announced in May.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that nine Illinois communities won more than $7.3 million in Brownfields funding, a program which is at its highest funding level to expedite the assessment and cleanup of Brownfield sites.

It was announced that Sterling will receive $500,000 toward cleanup of the 3.5-acre former Lawrence Bros. site, contaminated with metals and inorganic contaminants. Funding will cover asbestos and lead paint removal as well as underground cleanup. It’s part of the city’s $300-million-plus Riverfront Reimagined Project, a master plan for the Lawrence Bros. and National sites.

Dixon is being awarded $767,900 to help finish off cleanup at the former Dixon Iron and Metal Co. junkyard. It’s the centerpiece of the Viaduct Point Riverfront Revitalization project and part of plans to extend the bike path along the river and up the viaducts to Seventh Street.

The 3.13-acre site was first developed for industrial purposes in the late 1890s, with historical uses including carpentry, lumber, coal, gravel, warehousing and a junkyard. It was a scrapyard from 1910 to 2017, and the city acquired the property through abandonment court in a process that took two years.

In 2021, the EPA completed about $4 million of emergency cleanup at the DIMCO site at 78 Monroe Ave. after contaminants and heavy metals were found in the soil and in the Rock River.

[EPA finishes $4 million cleanup at Dixon scrapyard]

Viaduct Point is a partnership in which the city and the Lee County Industrial Development Association secured about 10 acres of land stretching from the Peoria Avenue Bridge to the viaducts, to prime the area for redevelopment.

[Dixon pursuing grant for $767,000 in additional cleanup work at former junkyard]

Rock Falls will receive an $800,000 Brownfields multipurpose grant to conduct five Phase I and two Phase II environmental site assessments, create a thorough site inventory, develop a community involvement plan and conduct other community outreach activities.

Grant funds also will be used to clean up a two-acre priority site at 700 W. Second St., which is part of the larger Parrish Alford Fence & Machine Company site that has been vacant since 2002.

The target area for this project is a low-income community comprising 1.1 square miles of the downtown and residential area along the Rock River.


Shoppes at Grandon open in downtown Sterling

The new Sterling Main Street downtown business incubator, Shoppes at Grandon Plaza, opened with four retailers.

The shops opened at 310 Second Ave., north of Grandon Civic Center and east of the Big Red Church. Four of six 12-by-16-foot free-standing “chalets” marked the beginning of the $200,000 project, which is meant “to attract small businesses, create more retail shopping options and bring people into downtown Sterling,” Main Street Executive Director Janna Groharing has said.

To aid in their long-term success, the incubator’s new retailers have access to advice, training and mentoring from the experts at the Small Business Development Center at Sauk Valley Community College, and from Main Street, the Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce and other community partners.


Fire breaks out in downtown Sterling building

A fire began on the third floor of the three-story building at 406-408 E. Third St. about 2:20 a.m. on July 7; the body of Juan Antonio “Tony” Anaya, 62, was recovered July 11.

Two people examine building remains after an early morning fire at 406 E. Third St. in Sterling destroyed a three-story building July 7.

The cause of Anaya’s death was asphyxia from breathing the products of combustion, Coroner Joe McDonald said.

The building that burned had eight apartments on the second and third floors and 13 tenants. There were two vacant commercial spots on the first floor. Several nearby buildings also were damaged as a result of the fire.

The ATF National Response Team is investigating the cause of the fire and has not yet submitted its report to the city.

Lee County Tourism Council to dissolve by end of 2023

The Lee County Tourism Council dissolved at the end of the year following the termination of an intergovernmental agreement that helped fund the nonprofit.

Since its formation in 1988, the Lee County Tourism Council has promoted the county’s lodgings; restaurants; attractions; conventions; expositions; and theatrical, sport and cultural activities. Its funding came from a 5% hotel tax imposed countywide, except in municipalities that have their own hotel tax.

On Dec. 2, 2004, Dixon and Lee County entered an intergovernmental agreement whereby the Lee County Tourism Council and the city would split 98.5% of the hotel tax revenue 50-50; 1.5% of the revenue goes to the county treasurer for administration. Dixon withdrew from that agreement, effective Nov. 30. The decision was finalized May 1, when Dixon City Council members unanimously voted to terminate the intergovernmental agreement.


Bonnell Industries breaks ground on new facility

Local leaders, economic development officials and employees celebrated the groundbreaking for Bonnell Industries’ new manufacturing facility in the Lee County Business Park.

Bob Bonnell, father of Bonnell Industries owner Joe Bonnell (right), slips on a hard hat for the official groundbreaking Wednesday, August 30, 2023 of a new facility in Dixon.

The three-generation company, founded in 1960, is a leading truck equipment distributor in northern Illinois and a major supplier of snowplows and spreaders for municipalities throughout the country. The new manufacturing facility, which will see at least 16 jobs added to Bonnell’s workforce over the next few years, is expected to be ready for use in July 2024.

As he addressed the large crowd gathered in the now-gravel lot at 325 E. Progress Drive, where the 100,000-square-foot facility will sit, Bonnell Industries’ Chief Operating Officer Bill Hintzsche said expanding the business to meet growing customer demand has been under discussion for years.

Sterling council OKs $457,000 in playground equipment for riverfront park

The City Council approved paying two vendors almost $457,000 for scads of equipment for a multiage, ADA-compliant playground at the burgeoning 12,000-square-foot riverfront park along the Rock at the former Northwestern Steel and Wire Mill site.

A large splash pad, which will have a steel mill theme, is planned for a later phase.

According to the companies’ proposals, there will be treehouses to clamber up into, one big, one little, rocks of all sizes, and nets and ladders to climb, bridges to traverse, tunnels to burrow through and slides to glide down. Among other features, the merry-go-round, swings and teeter-totter, along with the playground’s surface, will accommodate wheelchair-users.

As part of Sterling's Riverfront Reimagined project, the Lawrence Bros. building will be redeveloped into a 75-room hotel and events center, at an estimated cost of $46.3 million. Work is slated to finish by July 1, 2027.

There’s also a fire pole and a ball maze, and the more mysterious SpyroSlide, Double Bobble Rider and Wobble Pod. It’s all part of the master plan for the Lawrence Bros. and National sites, a component of the $300-million-plus Riverfront Reimagined Project.


Dixon School District purchases Nachusa property

In an effort to reconnect special-education students to their local community, the Dixon School District made strides toward creating a therapeutic day school for students who now are being educated out of the district, and in some cases traveling up to 90 minutes to get to school.

School district officials closed on the Nachusa property on Illinois 38, spending $300,000 to buy the campus that includes multiple buildings that had been owned by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. The goal is to open a therapeutic day school in the fall of 2024 that will provide special-education students with a small classroom setting, high staff-to-student ratio and comprehensive treatment for mental health and behavioral issues that occur throughout the school day.

Work is now underway to renovate and remodel the property as it becomes the Thomas J. Dempsey Therapeutic Day School.

Raynor opens new manufacturing and distribution facility

A little more than a year after buying the former 575,000-square-foot Rayovac battery distribution center, Raynor Garage Doors opened its new manufacturing and distribution facility at 200 E. Corporate Drive.

Raynor Garage Doors President Rick Considine speaks during the Sept. 9 grand opening in Dixon.

The new plant, located on about 55 acres in the Lee County Business Park, brings the total to six – and about 1 million square feet of space – that Raynor operates from its main headquarters at 1101 E. River Road. It employs about 500 people, including office and production staff.

The expansion was needed to increase the company’s warehouse and production capacity to meet the growing demands the manufacturer is seeing, said Brittany Shannon, vice president of marketing at Raynor who is a fourth-generation member of the family business.

The new location also is close to Interstate 88, making it convenient not only for receiving shipments of raw materials but also for sending out shipments of finished garage doors. Several new garage door lines are planned.

The company was founded in 1946.


Exceptional Care in Sterling breaks ground on new building

Exceptional Care & Training Center broke ground on its new building, which will be built on a 25-acre parcel at 1324 S. Main St., just northwest of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, off St. Mary’s and West 23rd streets.

The center, which provides residential and training services for area adults with profound intellectual disabilities, has outgrown its current location at 2601 Woodlawn Road, next to McDonald’s, Melissa Francque, Exceptional Care’s executive director, said in July 2022 when announcing the expansion.

The center has been there since 1979; the building was built in 1964.

State approval for the new facility was obtained in May, and as much site work as weather permits will be done this year. Construction resumes in the spring, Franque said.


Dixon YMCA breaks ground on new child care center

Local officials gathered in the Dixon Gateway Development area to break ground for the Dixon YMCA’s 15,000-square-foot Lovett Child Development Center.

Dixon Family YMCA CEO Andy McFarlane thanks the board, city leaders and local supporters for helping to start the process of building the new child development center Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

The new child care facility at 1675 Fulfs Lane, Dixon, on the west side of Galena Avenue and across from Walmart, will expand on services offered through the YMCA by providing child care services for children ages infant to 5 and increasing capacity to more than 200 families, according to a YMCA news release. It will house more than 12 new classrooms, two gross motor skills rooms, kitchen services, a nurses station, two outdoor playgrounds and an area for outside services from YMCA partner agencies. The project’s cost is estimated at $4.6 million.

Conversations began back in September 2022 on how to address the YMCA’s space and capacity issues. The Dixon YMCA, XSITE group and Walsh Partners worked closely together to make the new construction happen, according to a YMCA news release.


Rock Falls hires consultant for Micro Industries asbestos removal

The city of Rock Falls hired outside help to rid the former Micro Industries building of asbestos.

The Rock Falls City Council on Dec. 19 unanimously voted to contract with Terracon Consultants of Glendale Heights for asbestos consulting services at a cost not to exceed $98,640.

“As part of our $2.2 million grant that we received for the Rebuild Downtowns and Main Streets, about $600,000 of that was going towards asbestos abatement,” City Administrator Robbin Blackert said. “In order to write the grant, we had to hire Terracon to do the survey of asbestos, which ended up being about 600 pages long.”

Forty areas in five of the Micro Industries buildings were found to contain asbestos, according to Terracon’s proposal for consulting services. Blackert said the city is looking to have the asbestos removed sometime in late spring or early summer 2024.

Dixon riverfront redevelopment enters final phase

With the first two projects of a multi-phased riverfront redevelopment along the Rock River now completed and the third underway, an open house gave Dixon residents a glimpse of the fourth and final phase – Project Rock – which will include a pedestrian bridge spanning the Rock River.

Dubbed “Project Rock,” the plans were put on display for the public’s viewing Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 at Dixon City Hall.

The first phase, Heritage Crossing, broke ground in August 2008 and was completed in 2009. Featuring walking and biking trails, it also has a performance space, restrooms, a statue of hometown son President Ronald Reagan and an amphitheater.

Also in 2009, a multi-use path that extends east along River Road from Galena Avenue to Route 2 was installed, completing Phase 2.

[View a gallery of Sauk Valley Media’s top sports photos of 2023]

The third phase of the project at Viaduct Point, the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program multi-use path, is under construction now. It extends the bike path 1.6 miles – stretching east on River Road toward Raynor Garage Doors and west along the river with a ramp to the viaducts running to Seventh Street.

The fourth phase, Project Rock, will construct a pedestrian bridge on the old Illinois Central Railroad piers, add 2.8 miles of multi-use path, add new sidewalks and crossings, and resurface Page Drive, which is maintained by the Dixon Park District.

Have a Question about this article?
Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema is the editor of Sauk Valley Media.