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Plenty of ups and downs in the Fox Valley in 2013

Despite darkening clouds no one is leaving Blues Fox Festival Saturday evening RiverEdge Park's inaugural event Aurora. | Denise Crosby~For

Despite darkening clouds, no one is leaving the Blues on the Fox Festival Saturday evening at RiverEdge Park's inaugural event in Aurora. | Denise Crosby~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 1, 2014 6:14AM

It was a busy year in the Fox Valley, with the opening of a major
new entertainment venue, massive flooding in the spring and plenty of construction projects.

The top local news stories for 2013, as compiled by The Beacon-News editorial staff, were:

1. RiverEdge Park opens

It was the phrase Mayor Tom Weisner had waited seven years to say: “Welcome to RiverEdge Park in downtown Aurora.”

After years of planning, Aurora’s new RiverEdge Park music garden, the first of a multi-year phased project, along the Fox River, officially opened in June.

And for the concert venue on the Fox River, it was a season of firsts. Blues legend Buddy Guy was the first to headline at the John C. Dunham’s open-air stage. The Aurora Civic Center Authority, the team that manages the Paramount Theatre, became the first group to manage the park. The group will continue to manage RiverEdge Park for at least the next three years.

Two Brothers was the first main food vendor of the park, serving crowds of about 9,500 at the massive music pavilion.

The $13 million venue, at 360 N. Broadway, was funded through a combination of grants and donations from the State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Fox Valley Park District and the Dunham Fund.

As ACCA remains focused on programming, the city has focused efforts on developing the next phase of the park, the pedestrian bridge that will connect the east and west banks of the Fox River. In August, City Council approved the hiring of a professional fundraising team to develop a fundraising plan for the next phases of the park. Then, in September, the city hired construction company R.C. Wegman and engineering firm Wills Burke Kelsey Associates to assist city staff with bridge concept development. The Kane County Forest Preserve District has already pledged a $2 million grant toward the pedestrian bridge project.

2. Heroin deaths on the rise

Heroin-related headlines continued throughout 2013 after a record-number of overdoses were reported in some of our communities.

With several months still not officially documented, there were already 45 deaths in DuPage County this year, compared to 38 in all of 2012, which itself set a record number.

At the same time, more stories were also written about the ongoing battle to stem the tide of this epidemic, an effort that includes schools, parents, municipalities, law enforcement and county officials like the coroners and state’s attorney’s offices.

The alarming statistics, for example, prompted DuPage Coroner Richard Jorgensen to work with the DuPage County Medical Society and County Board to identify trends and needs as more people move from prescription opiates like oxycodone or vicodin to the more readily available, cheaper and more powerfully addictive heroin.

Kane Coroner Rob Russell says he too is looking for ways to work more closely with law enforcement and the medical profession to fight this scourge.

“We need to think outside the box,” he said.

As depressing and sometimes repetitive as these heroin stories are, law enforcement say when media attention wanes, the problem seems to get worse.

“This story,” insists Jorgensen “begs to be told more and more.”

3. Construction on Routes 47 and 59

Work began on a number of key state highways in the area, including Routes 59 and 47.

Summer is always construction season in Illinois, but in 2013, the season brought the start of work on some of the areas biggest and most traveled roadways.

In August, work began on the $118 million upgrade of Route 59 between Aurora Avenue and Ferry Road.

The project includes widening the road to three lanes in each direction, remaking the intersection with Interstate 88, installing new turns lanes at some intersections and installing some additional sidewalks.

The project will run until sometime in 2015.

That’s roughly the timetable for Route 47 through Yorkville, too, which actually began in the spring of 2013. For most of the year, the roadway was torn up and traffic through town, from almost Route 34 to almost Route 71, was down to one lane in each direction.

Also, intersections along the way, particularly those with Hydraulic and Van Emmon, took turns being closed in different directions.

4. Ground broken
for new library

The future began in May, when the Aurora Public Library broke ground on its new building at River and Benton streets downtown.

The $28 million facility, which will be built around the latest in library technology as well as be a traditional community meeting place, is expected to be open to the public by late 2014 or early 2015.

It is being built on the same property that once housed the offices and press of The Beacon-News. It will be 92,000 square feet, twice the size of the current main building at Stolp Avenue and Benton Street.

The city of Aurora has bonded to pay the $28 million cost of building and equipping the library, but the city also received a $10.8 million state grant to offset some of the cost.

In addition to the building, the city also set aside some of the bond money to upgrade the Eola Road facility, and develop new satellite locations in the Northeast and Southeast parts of the city.

5. Villalpando murder

When police discovered the burned body of 18-year-old West Aurora High School senior Abigail Villalpando dumped in a Montgomery field in February, Aurora’s year-long murder-free streak came to a halt.

Police said the young waitress had been beaten to death with a hammer inside of an Aurora home by a man she had grown up with.

Her car and her body were torched, police said.

According to Abigail’s brother, Ricky, Aby had been friends with the man accused of administering the fatal blow. Juan Garnica, of Aurora, remains in custody on $5 million bail. He has been charged with murder, arson and concealing a homicide.

Two other men, Enrique Prado, of Aurora, and Jose Becerra, of Oswego, were charged with concealing Villalpando’s death. Both men were released from custody in November after a judge reduced their bonds.

6. Fox Valley flooding

In April, Fox Valley residents were hit hard with torrential rains that flooded communities and destroyed some homes and businesses.

More than seven inches of rain fell over a two-day period beginning April 17, wreaking havoc throughout the state.

In Aurora, residents lined up for sand bags, and tossed ruined furniture to the curb.

Throughout the surrounding counties, schools closed and memories of the flood of 1996 filled people’s heads.

Federal assistance helped residents put the pieces back together.

Local counties, including Kane and Kendall, were declared disaster areas following several days of non-stop storms that pummeled the area.

7. No charges in West Aurora investigation

After a 10-month investigation, the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office decided not to charge any West Aurora School District personnel for failure to report suspicions of child abuse to the state, despite having enough evidence to do so. Instead, the office and the district entered into a five-year agreement that requires school personnel to receive more training about reporting child abuse and neglect.

A July 2010 incident involving former West High band director Steve Orland sparked the investigation. In 2012, Orland pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two female students and is now serving a 12-year prison sentence.

Evidence from the investigation is being used in an ongoing civil case against the district, Orland, West Aurora Superintendent James Rydland and former West High principal Dan Bridges, who is now Naperville 203’s superintendent. One month after the investigation results were released, Rydland announced he will retire in June 2014.

8. Aurora aldermanic elections

With the help of a general election, 2013 brought four new aldermen to Aurora’s City Council. The newly-elected aldermen included lifelong 3rd Ward resident Ted Mesiacos; Bill Donnell, who beat out seven hopefuls to represent the 4th Ward; and two far East Siders, Aldermen Ed Bugg and Lynne Johnson, now representing the 9th and 10th wards respectively.

By the end of the year, the aldermanic turnover on City Council would grow to five. In September, Alderman Abby Schuler unexpectedly left City Council to take a city job. In her place, Weisner appointed longtime 1st Ward leader Kristina “Tina” Bohman, who was sworn in in November.

Adding new faces to City Council led to a memorable shakeup, too.

In August, veteran Alderman Juany Garza, 2nd Ward, called comments made by new alderman Johnson “racist.” The reaction came after Johnson asked a Human Relations Commission appointee about his association with the National Council of La Raza.

9. East Aurora School Board elections

Election season was contentious in East Aurora. Incumbent school board members touted improvements in policies and financial procedures, but had to answer for past district mistakes, including credit card misuse, a rescinded transgender policy and health insurance issues.

Sitting School Board President Annette Johnson came under particular fire for playing too large a role in running the district’s day-to-day operations and challengers vowed to find a new interim superintendent to replace or work alongside the retiring superintendent, Jerome Roberts.

In the end, two fresh faces, Kirsten Strand and Mary Louise Peryea, were elected to the board and Johnson, who admitted to making “some mistakes along the way,” was re-elected by a 44-vote margin, then selected by the board to serve again as president.

10. Aurora parking meters come out

After pleas from business owners, downtown motorists could finally leave the quarters at home after the city removed an estimated 900 parking meters in May.

But Aurora’s decision to go sans meters called for new rules for the city’s street, lot and garage parking spots. In place of the meters, the city instituted new parking zones, increased enforcement hours, instituted higher fines and other rules that impacted the city’s 7,000 spots. Crews installed 200 new signs downtown and parking is now free within the posted time instead of 15 to 25 cents per hour at the formerly metered spots.

Business owners and operators lauded the city for the no-meter move, which was implemented just ahead of the opening of RiverEdge Park.

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