1. CSL-Nucor begin massive plant expansions
For many years, the Kankakee County region had few causes for real economic celebration. Then, the unthinkable happened. In late 2017 and early 2018, two eye-popping expansions were announced. They were so significant that a region widely known for its economic misfortune now was being lauded for what can happen in Illinois and the Midwest.
First, in 2017, metal beam and rebar maker Nucor Steel announced a $180 million expansion at its Bourbonnais manufacturing plant.
Then, in early 2018, CSL Behring announced plans for the creation of CSL South campus, a 1.8 million-square-foot expansion of its pharmaceutical plant in Bourbonnais Township.
The news of these expansions quickly spread throughout the Midwest, and Kankakee County gained notoriety for being the home of the largest manufacturing expansions in Illinois.
Steady progress has been taking place since and to top it off, Nucor announced in September that it was investing another $40 million into new equipment at its plant.
2. George Ryan released from federal prison
Former one-term Illinois governor and Kankakeean George Ryan was released from federal custody on July 3, 2013, after serving 5.5 years of a 6.5-year sentence for wide-ranging corruption offenses.
Ryan, then 80, had been released from the federal prison in Terra Haute, Ind., in January 2013 and served six months of home confinement in Kankakee prior to being released from federal custody.
Ryan was sentenced to prison in 2007, but his sentence was reduced for good behavior.
Sitting in his kitchen days before he was released from home confinement, Ryan talked of his freedom with the Daily Journal.
“Life probably won’t change too much,” he said. “I have to finish getting this place in order. I’ll probably do some traveling. I don’t know where I’m going or what I’ll do.”
3. Bourbonnais Parkway opens
It was Nov. 2, 2018, and the cutting of the ribbon finally brought the Bourbonnais Parkway project to completion and the newest Interstate 57 interchange was opened in Bourbonnais.
It was a day talked about for 20 years and one which many thought they would not live to see.
Constructed by Kankakee Valley Construction Co. at a cost of $46.3 million, the project began in late summer 2015.
In addition to the interchange, extensive improvements were made to U.S. 45/52, Illinois 50 and County Road 6000N.
4. Watseka floods again and again and again
One-hundred year floods by definition are to happen every 100 years.
That calculation, however, was not the case in Watseka when it came to the subject of the Iroquois River throughout the past decade.
Watseka suffered through three 100-year floods this decade — 2014, 2015 and 2018.
The flooding problem became so severe, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in May 2018 awarded a $5.3 million flood mitigation grant to Watseka. The grant is designed to clear the way for the city to purchase 65 homes routinely endangered by floodwaters.
5. Kankakee elects first black mayor
The April 2017 Kankakee municipal election will be remembered for generations to come as it marked the first time Kankakee had elected a minority mayor.
In the election, Chasity Wells-Armstrong, an African American and a Democrat, defeated two-term Mayor Nina Epstein by 215 votes to take the city’s top elected office.
A two-year 5th Ward alderwoman, Wells-Armstrong’s victory shocked the city’s foundation.
“This is a movement,” she told supporters on election night. “We are tired of the status quo. This is our win. This does not stop tonight.”
Wells-Armstrong was sworn into office on May 1. She also was the first Democrat to claim the mayor’s office since 1993.
“I never saw a black mayor when I was a little kid, but I did see other people who have hope,” she said. “I ran as a mayor for everyone.”
6. A revolving door for retail
This past decade was one of great change when it came to shopping.
Northfield Square mall opened the decade as the top local shopping location, but by mid-2018 it lost three of its four anchor stores — the Carson’s women’s and men’s stores in May 2018 and Sears in April 2018.
This wasn’t the only retail shock wave that washed through Kankakee County this decade. The Bradley Kmart store closed in May 2017 and a Meijer sprang up in its location just a year later.
While Bradley still has a Super Walmart store, the store did change its location. Walmart started the decade at the corner of Armour Road and Illinois 50. It moved out of that location and into a new super store at the corner of Illinois 50 and St. George Road.
7. Kamron Taylor escapes from jail
It was a situation which had much of Kankakee County on edge for a three-day period in April 2015.
Convicted killer Kamron Taylor, then 23, staged a violent escape from the Jerome Combs Detention Center and fled the area, but not before a massive manhunt was staged in Kankakee’s Riverview neighborhood where police had found the vehicle used to get him from the south Kankakee jail.
Taylor was found in the South Side of Chicago armed with a .38-caliber pistol he stole from a jail guard’s SUV.
To escape, Taylor overpowered and seriously injured a jail guard. He then put on the guard’s clothing and walked out of the facility.
Taylor was sentenced to 107 years for the June 2013 murder of 21-year-old Nelson Williams Jr.
8. Parks director convicted of theft
Former Kankakee Valley Park District Executive Director Roy Collins was sentenced to 3½ years in federal prison in 2019 after pleading guilty to mail and wire fraud charges while he was executive director of the park district.
He also was ordered to repay the park district and the Kankakee Valley Park Foundation $165,540 and Municipal Bank in Bourbonnais $31,253.
Collins is appealing the sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The charges against Collins span from early 2012, when prosecutors allege unauthorized credit card purchases started, until early 2016, when prosecutors say Collins started creating false documents to conceal the foundation theft.
9. Beecher family killed in car accident
The Beecher community and the entire region mourned in late July 2017 when a pregnant mother and her three small children were killed in a tragic vehicle crash at a rural intersection.
Lindsey Schmidt, her sons, Owen, 6; Weston, 4; and Kaleb, 18 months, all died from a car accident. The family’s Subaru Outback was broadsided by a pickup truck driven by Sean B. Woulfe, then 25, of Manteno.
The Schmidt family was on its way to summer Bible school at Trinity Lutheran Church in Crete.
The husband and father of the family, Eddie Schmidt, has settled a wrongful death civil suit. The criminal case against Woulfe is pending in Will County court.
10. Bears make long-term commitment to Bourbonnais
When Olivet Nazarene University hosted the Chicago Bears’ summer training camp in 2001, the school’s top administrator thought it would likely be a three- to five-year arrangement.
It has turned into so much more.
In August 2013, the school and the National Football League team signed a series of nine one-year contracts which kept the team training in Bourbonnais through the end of the 2022 camp. The extension meant the Bears will have called Bourbonnais home for more than two decades.
“I didn’t think long term,” said ONU President John Bowling at the news conference announcing the extension. “I’m surprised it’s been 12 years. Pleasantly surprised. ... They are happy. We are happy.”