News-Leader Year In Review: January-June

The City of Rochelle broke ground on a new $13.8 million electrical substation project in May at 1,600 Ritchie Ct.

A look back at some of the top stories of the past year

January

Sunday, Jan. 31

ROCHELLE — Last academic year, U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger chose Marlen Hueramo’s drawing entitled “El Loro” for the 2020 Congressional Art Competition, a celebration of artistic discovery by the nation’s high school students.

El Loro is currently on display in the U.S. Capitol; however, Hueramo will not get to see it exhibited there with the other winners’ works as it is generally part of the winning recipient’s prize.

Like so many activities this year, The Congressional Institute cannot host the traditional in-person reception celebrating the winners. 

“We know how much students and their families appreciate being able to see their artwork (hanging) in the Capitol,” Kinzinger’s aide, Leah Bohlmann, recently told Hueramo.

In place of the in-person experience, The Congressional Institute created a virtual reception featuring videos from the Congressional Co-Chairs, Rep. Warren Davidson and Del. Gregorio Sablan, as well as letters from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

February

Wednesday, Feb. 10

ROCHELLE — The Rochelle Township High School speech team competed in the IHSA Regional Competition. As a team, Rochelle walked away as the regional champions.

Sunday, Feb. 14

SPRINGFIELD — Ogle County Sheriff Brian VanVickle was sworn in to serve as President of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association on Feb. 11 at the Virtual Winter Training Conference in Springfield.

VanVickle has served on the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association Executive Board for six years, having been nominated by DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott, and served the Northern Region while on the board.

“I’ve served on the executive board for six years and have been helping the past president,” VanVickle said. “I’m looking forward to continuing with the law enforcement coalition and moving forward to work with legislators going forward.”

VanVickle is in his 13th year of law enforcement and started as a police officer with the Rochelle Police Department prior to running for the office of Ogle County Sheriff. He was elected Ogle County Sheriff in 2014 and is currently serving his second term.

Sunday, Feb. 28

ROCHELLE — The City of Rochelle announced Thursday the receipt of a Rebuild Illinois grant in the amount of $365,750 to fund demolition toward redevelopment of the former Hickory Grove site. City officials have already been in talks with three separate developers with interest in the project.

“Being selected as one of just 11 projects throughout the state to receive this funding is an honor,” Mayor John Bearrows said.

“The Rebuild Illinois grant will allow us to move forward with this project while stretching our local dollars as much as possible,” City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh said.

March

Sunday, March 7

ROCHELLE – After nearly a year of closed doors, the Hub City Senior Center is reopening.

“We are opening on Monday but are easing back into activities,” center director Connie Daugherty said. 

“We are really happy to be opening back up but we want to remind everyone to follow the guidelines so that we can move forward and hopefully add more activities,” Daugherty added.

Visitors will be surprised to find some improvements at the center as well.

While the center has been closed, a variety of projects have been completed including painting, replacing cupboards and redecorating areas of the center.

Wednesday, March 10

ROCHELLE – City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh presented Mandi Morris and Michelle Knight with Good News Awards for their work on the Shop Local Program through Rochelle Municipal Utilities at Monday’s city council meeting. Fiegenschuh said over 900 applications have been processed and over $81,000 in credits have been issued through the program, which was designed to provide relief to local residents. Fiegenschuh also said $456,000 has been spent in the community as a result of the credits.

“This program has been so successful because of these two ladies,” Fiegenschuh said. “They always go above and beyond and I wanted to recognize them for all of their efforts.”

Wednesday, March 24

ROCHELLE — Many things in 2020 were put on hold due COVID-19 but the Ogle County Habitat for Humanity house build wasn’t one of them.

Shovels broke ground for the home on South Ninth Street in Rochelle in June 2020 that was completed earlier this month. The Felix and Tanya Vega family will soon be moving into the four-bedroom, two-bathroom home.

Habitat homes are modestly sized, typically not exceeding 1,050 square feet of living space. The three-bedroom ranch-style homes usually include an unfinished basement so that the family could eventually add another bedroom.

“This is a larger family so this particular home we did add a fourth bedroom, typically they are three-bedroom homes,” HFHOC Director Vanessa White-Broome said. “The last property that we finished was over on Eighth Avenue.”

April

Wednesday, April 7

ROCHELLE — Traditionally, voter turnout is higher when there are important, contested races. But that wasn’t the case here, even though Rochelle City Council had a highly-contested race with six candidates running for three seats. 

The three with the highest number of votes were Kate Shaw-Dickey, Dan McDermott and Rosaelia Arteaga. 

Shaw-Dickey, who had 419 votes, and McDermott, who brought in 333 votes, both are current sitting members of the council. Arteaga, a newcomer, garnered 341 votes and unseats incumbent Donald Burke, Jr., who had 215. 

Another newcomer, Juan Martinez, Jr., also edged out Burke with 233 votes. Candidate Cassondra Losoya had 88 votes.

Wednesday, April 14

ROCHELLE — The highlight of Tuesday’s Rochelle Elementary School board meeting was recognizing two retiring board members, but that moment was bittersweet as both women have been important leaders on the board for many years and will be missed. 

Jean Tess and Shirley Reif have served 20 years and 18 years, respectively. 

“Thanks for your many years of service … and thanks to your leadership, the district has continued to grow and make strides. I feel we’re in a better place because of you,” Superintendent Jason Harper said of Tess and Reif. 

Both women said one of the greatest accomplishments was building a new Lincoln School during a recession and having the community backing. They explained that because the board and school district were transparent with the community, it made the project a success. 

The other accomplishment both are proud of is the integrative/bilingual language program the school district has embraced after years of planning.

Sunday, April 18

HILLCREST — Hillcrest trustees voted to move forward with infrastructure improvements to the village water, sewer and roadway systems during their April meeting Wednesday evening. 

The improvements will include a new water tower, a new shallow well and a new water treatment plant as well as water, sewer and roadway work on the south end of the village. The Hillcrest board is working with Baxter & Woodman Engineering to apply for grant funding to help pay for the project. The estimated overall cost for the 200,000-gallon water tower, the shallow well, the water treatment plant and the first phase of infrastructure work is $5.24 million.

ROCHELLE — In the end it was of little fanfare when the Rochelle Elementary School Board voted unanimously to close May School. 

Superintendent Jason Harper reminded the board that in February he made a recommendation to close the building due to declining student enrollment in the district. Current projections put May School at half capacity next school year with that trending downward going forward. 

Harper added that the district will continue to maintain the property. 

In March, the school board hosted a parent/community meeting to answer any questions of concerns. 

“My recommendation remains the same as it did a few months ago,” Harper said. 

It’s an interesting situation as the property legally could go back to the developer’s family if it’s not used by the school district. That clause was put into place when the subdivision was developed roughly 60 years ago. Harper said they are working with the May family to figure out the details and the district continues to appreciate its longstanding relationship with the May Family. 

Along with the closing of May School and the declining enrollment, the board voted to adopt an attendance center model for the district. This also was discussed at the March public meeting.

May

Sunday, May 9

ROCHELLE — The Hub City Senior Center prom started shortly after Director Connie Dougherty did. 

“We have pictures displayed all over of the people who were named king and queen,” Dougherty said. “It's just been so much fun and rewarding and everyone loves it so much.”

Memories of the prom stand out most for Dougherty when she reflects on her time as director. She’ll be retiring at the end of this month after 20 years. 

Dougherty said she won’t miss the paper and office work that’s required by the job. What made the decision to retire tough was the people. That’s what she’ll miss most. Unfortunately as part of the job, she’s already had to learn how to do that. 

“Because these people become family,” Dougherty said. “Over these 20 years I've lost so many of them and they've left big holes in my heart. In that way it's been difficult, but it's also been so rewarding because to be able to help people and to love on them and make a difference in their lives and bring them joy and happiness, you can't put a price on that."

Wednesday, May 12

ROCHELLE — While on vacation with his son one year, Ken Foss saw a little coffee shop with a drive thru. 

Then, he owned McKendrie Street Cafe in Mt Morris.

“I told my son we don't have anything like that in Illinois,” Foss said, “I told him when he graduated from high school, I was going to open a drive thru coffee. He graduated in 2019 and I closed the restaurant the week after he graduated and opened this.”

Black Pearl Coffee Shop is open in the Hickory Grove parking lot Monday through Wednesday from 6 a.m. until 1 p.m. Foss set up shop for the first time last month. 

Black Pearl offers various coffees, hot chocolate, slushies and smoothies. Muffins and cookies are also on the menu along with Hub City-branded cups and mugs.

The shop is housed in a mobile trailer, which Foss uses to sell in other towns when he’s not in Rochelle. The Stillman Valley resident formerly lived in Rochelle for 21 years. 

"The community has been awesome,” Foss said. “They love me being here. There's times in the mornings where traffic is backed up. And I'm just getting started. There's things I know I can do to speed up the process. It's all trial and error."

CRESTON – Rumors that the new owners of Headon’s Fine Meats in Creston are getting rid of brats are unfounded. 

“That would be the dumbest thing we could do,” new owner Mark Hibshman said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of rumors going around that we’re going to change things. It’s completely the opposite.”

Hibshman and his son, Justin, officially purchased Headon’s on April 3 from Lyle Headon, who owned the business for 50 years. Headon sold it because he wanted to retire, Mark Hibshman said. 

The Hibshman family has lived in Creston since 2009 and owns Mark’s Stuff across the street from the butcher shop, which specializes in woodworking and other items. 

The name, meat, recipes, managers and butchers at Headon’s will remain the same. 

“It’s truly an honor to take it over,” Mark said. “Whoever took it over was going to take over the legacy. The employees are extremely happy. It’s business as usual. We can’t say enough good things about being able to do this.”

Sunday, May 16

ROCHELLE – The owners of Midwestern Clothing Company didn’t anticipate trying to open a storefront until at least 2022. 

Haley and Kelsey Kersten and Alyssa Fortson started their own clothing brand last October with limited online releases and sales each week. On Saturday, they opened their own full storefront at 413 W. 4th Ave. in downtown Rochelle. 

After starting to sell some items in person at a space inside Remedy Boutique Tanning earlier this year, the trio knew their timeline could move up. 

“It has grown way quicker than we could've ever imagined,” Haley said. “Which is amazing, but I do credit Remedy a lot for that. That was us taking a risk. That really changed things for us financially and with exposure. A lot more people were willing to stop in rather than do it online.”

The brand sells women’s clothing and has started to bring in more unisex inventory.

Wednesday, May 19

ROCHELLE – The City of Rochelle broke ground on a new $13.8 million electrical substation project Friday at 1,600 Ritchie Ct. 

The substation will be the city’s third, which Mayor John Bearrows called “unheard of” for its size. The substation will increase reliability for nearby industry and reduce reliance on Rochelle’s Caron Road substation. 

The site is next to the old Nippon-Sharyo building, which will likely become the location of Project Jackpot in the future, a still-anonymous business that is said to be making a capital investment of over $130 million and adding 150 jobs that pay an average of $52,000 per year before benefits to the area. 

City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh said Project Jackpot will be Rochelle’s largest electricity user. The substation will serve that and any other industrial growth going south. The capacity of the new substation is 120 megawatts and it will be the city’s largest.

Wednesday, May 26

ROCHELLE — Diana King never pictured herself working with the aging population. 

And then she went back to school and was working at Oak Crest in DeKalb, a continuing care facility. 

“And I just loved it,” King said. “Now I don't picture myself doing anything else."

King will be the Hub City Senior Center’s new director starting this month. She comes from Family Service Agency in DeKalb where she was senior program manager and ran four senior centers throughout DeKalb County. She’d been there 10 years and lives in Malta. 

King will replace Connie Dougherty in Rochelle, who is retiring after 20 years. 

“It just seemed like a perfect fit for me,” King said. “I'm very passionate about working with the aging population and when I heard Connie was retiring I thought it'd be a great fit."

Sunday, May 30

ROCHELLE — In June, kids won’t just be returning to Spring Lake Pool after it was closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They’ll be returning to a facility that has recently undergone $500,000 worth of renovations including the addition of a splash pad, patched and repainted pools, new shade umbrellas, an upgraded locker room with LED lighting, 16 new lower entrance parking stalls, new fencing and revamped landscaping. 

"We can't wait to see the kids' faces,” Flagg-Rochelle Park District Executive Director Jackee Ohlinger said. “They're going to be ecstatic. One, they haven't been here in so long and they're just anxious to be part of normalcy with their friends. Now they have some new things to catch their eye and experience."

The park district received a $310,000 grant in matching funds from the state’s Open Space Land Acquisition and Development program. When completely finished, the total project will be $620,000.

June

Wednesday, June 2

ROCHELLE — There were a lot of thank yous during Rochelle Township High School’s graduation on Saturday. 

RTHS Principal Chris Lewis thanked parents for their understanding during the most challenging academic year of their children’s lives. He thanked teachers and staff for overcoming COVID-19 challenges to provide the best education possible for students. 

Most of all, he thanked the 188 students sitting in front of him. 

“You did everything we asked you to do this year,” Lewis said. “You wore your mask, you Zoomed in, you went to office hours. You survived hybrid learning, social distancing. All these things are new and you made it work.”

The ceremony was held outdoors on the football field to allow for more attendance. Students were allowed seven tickets each for their families. The stands were nearly filled. Students sat in chairs in front of a stage on the field. 

ROCHELLE — On Tuesday, the Flagg-Rochelle Public Library opened its doors to the public for the first time since closing them due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It feels great to reopen,” Library Director Sarah Flanagan said. “I’m so happy we’re able to get normalcy back to the library. The community has been supportive. We want to make sure people have access. We’ll be happy to see all our patrons after a long year.”

Sunday, June 6

ROCHELLE — When raising money with other Rochelle Township High School cheerleaders to be in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade years ago, Emily Anaya realized she had a skill — and a passion — for fundraising. 

“That was the first time I realized, 'This is what I'm going to do,’” Anaya said. “It had an impact on me.”

Anaya was named the new executive director of the Rochelle Area Community Foundation in recent weeks and started her position June 1. After growing up in Rochelle, Anaya worked for Rochelle Community Hospital for nine years as foundation and community events coordinator before becoming supervisor of philanthropy and major gifts at SwedishAmerican Foundation in Rockford. 

After being in healthcare for 16 years, Anaya was ready for something different. She has an appreciation for the impact that RACF has had on the local community. She’ll replace Kim Montgomery, who was executive director for 12 years. 

Sunday, June 13

ROCHELLE — The City of Rochelle held a ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday for its recently-completed wastewater plant improvement project. 

The total cost of the project was just over $7 million and it included upgrading headworks equipment, converting aeration to biological phosphorus removal, upgrading the anaerobic lagoon, adding an office administration building and the conversion of the plant’s lab.

Rochelle Municipal Utilities Superintendent Adam Lanning said the improvements will save time and keep RMU ahead of the curve with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Wednesday, June 16

ROCHELLE — Rochelle city officials made a plea to the public Monday to reach out to state lawmakers and the governor’s office in support of keeping the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa, Illinois open past 2035. 

A proposed state energy bill would see the plant close earlier-than-planned in 14 years. The city has $150 million in debt left with Prairie State until 2042. Rochelle bought into the plant in 2007. The plant provides a large portion of Rochelle Municipal Utilities’ power. 

Rochelle Mayor John Bearrows said at a Monday press conference that the negative economic impact the plant’s early closure would have on Rochelle is “huge,” “financially-devastating” and RMU would “probably” no longer exist as we know it today.

Wednesday, June 30

ROCHELLE — The City of Rochelle city council unanimously approved the tentative purchase of the Johnson Tractor building at 1030 S. 7th St. for $1.3 million at its Monday meeting. 

The plan for the building is to consolidate Rochelle Municipal Utilities equipment and supplies. The offices will also be utilized by city and RMU staff and will consolidate these operations to a fewer number of buildings for city and RMU operations. The appraised price of the building was $1.255 million. City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh advised the council to up the amount to no more than $1.3 million to cover potential closing costs. 

“The whole idea is to consolidate operations into one location,” Fiegenschuh said. “We'll have the electric, water and water reclamation. I'd like to see some of the city side and potentially engineering down there. There's some opportunities to consolidate more operations into one location.”

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