It's a dreary, chilly evening, when most folks want to hunker down with a book or favorite TV show. But Batavia Mothers' Club members Jennifer Baerren, Jennifer Meiring and Pam Kent are meeting at the public library to plan the 11th annual Fox Trot 5K Walk in April.
"It's one of our two major fundraisers," Baerren explained. "It raises $9,000 to $14,000 for educational organizations in town."
Batavia is a town, said the women, where you don't just strap on your running shoes on Saturday morning for a charity run. You volunteer your time to organize the event. The bonus, said the women, is the camaraderie.
"People get involved here," Meiring said. "The kids know the other kids' parents, and the parents get to know each other."
Population 27,700, Batavia is the southernmost of the Fox River Valley's Tri-Cities, which include Geneva and St. Charles. Landlocked on three sides by the Fabyan Forest Preserve, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and Mooseheart Child City & School, Batavia expanded westward during the 1980s-1990s building boom. Now, only a few patches of undeveloped land are left between local thoroughfare Randall Road and the city's western limits.
Batavia lacks a Metra station, so it tends to draw homebuyers who work in the valley. It is a few miles north of Interstate Highway 88, though, which feeds some workers to the DuPage County high-tech corridor to the east and to Northern Illinois University to the west.
Fermilab is Batavia's jewel, providing jobs, recreational space, a science center that hosts kids' classes and a herd of buffalo that tolerates photographers.
While homeowners west of Randall Road carpool to their kids' soccer games and piano lessons, those who live in Batavia's downtown can walk or bike to activities. The busy Fox River Trail runs a dual course through Batavia, on both sides of the river. Long before railroad tracks became bike paths, 1892 newspapers wrote of Batavia women daring to wear divided skirts so they didn't have to ride their bicycles sidesaddle.
Batavia was called "The Windmill City" during the Industrial Revolution, when it was a major producer of windmills. More recently, it has renamed itself the "City of Energy." The river, which provided water power to the city's early windmill factories, is still the city's nexus. The volunteer-built Riverwalk Park draws residents to Batavia events such as the Art in Your Eye Fine Art Show & Festival and the Celebration of Lights Festival.
Batavia's downtown reinvented itself in the 1990s, going from a collection of empty factories to an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops and public art. Indeed, Batavia has more than its share of resident artists, including metal sculptor Kai Schulte and painter Rosalie Waranius Vass. Dance recitals and theater productions fill its community calendar, while the Water Street Studios host art shows and classes.
A $1.5 million state grant will help "jazz up" Batavia's downtown with new landscaping, benches and crosswalks, said Jeff Schielke, mayor since 1981.
Randall Road, on the other hand, already has every requisite chain restaurant and store. As farm fields yielded to big-box stores, the Tri-Cities intermarried here. "Now, between the three towns, we have everything from Target to Sam's Club at what some people call 'Randallville,'" Schielke said. "It's provided a lot of new jobs."
Thanks to the recession, buying a home in Batavia is more affordable. Recent sales in the historic district range from a handyman special that sold for $50,000 to a rehabbed 19th-century farmhouse that had already seen a handyman and sold for $200,000. Batavia's grande dames include a 1906 Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house on Illinois Highway 31, currently listed for $1.55 million.
Typical of the higher end of Batavia's newer-house market is a five-bedroom house with lots of bells and whistles that sold recently for $655,000.
Nearly 70 percent of Batavia's homes are single-family, so, like many suburbs, Batavia recognizes a need for more multifamily, maintenance-free housing for downsizing baby boomers, Schielke said. He points to two sites that will serve this market when the economy recovers — the former Siemens Energy and Automation factory site on Batavia's near west side and 470 acres of the Mooseheart campus that are slated to be annexed to Batavia.
"Long term, the Mooseheart annexation is in Batavia's best interests," Schielke said. "It's already in our police and fire service areas. Housing for empty nesters will add real estate tax money without adding kids to the schools." The annexation also includes commercial development.
The No. 1 draw for Batavia buyers is the schools, residents say. "They are awesome and high-scoring," said real estate agent Kim Haeger from Kettley Realtors in Batavia. "That's usually why people come here, whether they want an old house in town or like being in the country."
Asked why Batavia beat its Tri-Cities neighbors in recent ACT scores, Batavia Public School District 101 Superintendent Jack Barshinger said, "We don't just have parental involvement, but community involvement too. The mayor was out there giving the kids apples on our Walk to School Day. Fifty-two percent of our staff lives here and sends their kids to school in Batavia. The staff knows the kids, and that makes a difference."
Thanks to a 2007 referendum measure that passed before the recession hit, Batavia High School is expanding, adding classrooms, a field house and an auditorium.
In addition to its public schools, Batavia has two PK-8 private schools — Montessori Academy and Immanuel Lutheran School.
Batavia's "City of Energy" slogan refers to its former windmill-makers and to the particle physics of Fermilab, but it could define its recreational pace. Weekends, residents run or bike on trails that wind through Fermilab and the area's forest preserves. Canoers and kayakers paddle the river, while fishermen don waders to catch bass.
Hot weather sends Batavians to the Hall Quarry Beach, made from a spent quarry and defended by some community members who reject proposals that it be replaced by a traditional pool. "It's an institution," Schielke said.
Come wintertime, Batavians ice-skate on the jog of the river known as Depot Pond, re-creating the scene an artist depicted for a 1958 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
History buffs trek to Batavia's restored 1854 railroad depot, which now serves as a museum, or to the Bellevue Place apartment building, a former sanitarium ("for nervous ladies," reads one history book) where Mary Todd Lincoln once lived. "She was only there for six months, but we still get people straying into City Hall asking where the building is," Schielke said.
Windmill fanciers check out Batavia's collection of 15 restored windmills. "Now, we've gone full circle," Schielke said. "In our industrial park, we have New Edison Energy, which makes wind turbines."
The sport of choice at Batavia kaffeeklatsches is debating the location and funding of another bridge over the Fox River, needed to alleviate rush-hour traffic jams. The City Council chose its location (Webster to First Streets) in November and put Batavia on the list of Fox Valley towns that want federal funds.
While the Randall Road development upped retail theft, Batavia is a safe community where violent crime is rare. A recent police log, for example, included an intoxicated minor, a wallet stolen from a grocery parking lot and a bicycle stolen from a garage.
Although residential and commercial development has filled the land that used to separate the Tri-Cities from the western suburbs, the trio remains distinctly non-suburban. Unlike bedroom communities, they attract residents who don't just sleep here; they work and play here too.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun