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Blanton has big plans for Hennepin feeder canal

Annexing, leasing and maintaining waterway will bring more users, mayor says

ROCK FALLS – Rock Falls Mayor David Blanton wants to annex part the Hennepin Feeder Canal into the city, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is on board.

For the past couple of years, Blanton has been talking with the IDNR about annexing then leasing the scenic 2.2-mile waterway that leads to the main canal.

Both city officials and an IDNR site superintendent said such an agreement would benefit the state and the city.

The IDNR now is responsible for maintaining the canal. Some of that work includes mowing, removing fallen trees, and keeping feed gates clear so water flows to the main canal, site superintendent Dave Hahne said.

At the Dec. 4 council meeting, members agreed to create committee, lead by Alderman Jim Schuneman, to work with the DNR on annexation and leasing.

The two agencies must approve an intergovernmental agreement before the city can lease the feeder canal. A lease cost has not been determined, but will be minimal, Blanton said, adding that it likely would be a 10-year agreement.

The IDNR would be happy to see the city take over maintenance. Because of staffing levels, sometimes necessary work doesn’t happen weekly or even every other week, Hahne said.

If Rock Falls were to annex the feeder, “it can be kept up better, so to speak,” Hahne said. “They could incorporate a lot of things and make other improvements as they propose them to us.”

A similar relationship exists along the western portion of the canal, where Colona leases 39 acres from the state for $200 a year, Mayor Danny McDaniel.

Blanton and Schuneman visited Colona, population about 5,000, in August, where that city has added many amenities to the canal and to a park area.

There are two baseball diamonds, four pavilions, horseshoe pits, playground equipment, and other recreational options. New $90,000 heated restrooms, open year-round, were made possible by a grant from the state, McDaniel said.

“The recreational opportunities up by Sterling-Rock Falls are a lot greater than it is up here,” McDaniel said. “We just felt that we want to provide recreational opportunities to the community. How best can you do that if you don’t try to at least maintain the banks of the canal?”

The lease agreement allows the city of Colona to make improvements with DNR approval, and the city has “never been turned down,” McDaniel said.

Colona also keeps the bike path cleared and the grass mowed. “We maintain it,” he said. “[It’s] one part of what state doesn’t have to foot the bill for.”

McDaniel said he “highly recommends” Rock Falls enter a similar agreement.

“You don’t want to give up on the Hennepin Canal,” he said. “We’ve had people come in to town from China, from outside city limits ... they wanted to see how they used to raise the bridge up.

“We used to do things like that. It’s important that we maintain that.”

Being a small town, Colona doesn’t have as many attractions as the neighboring Quad Cities, and that “makes it really difficult to attract people to this area,” he said. “We focus on the Hennepin Canal ... recreational opportunities are plentiful.”

The same is true in Rock Falls, Blanton says.

“You always see people walking, people using it year round. With the addition of the walk bridge across Sterling, it makes it more desirable. It would be a great asset to the city to move forward.”

His long-term goal is to make the site a recreational area, with attractions such as nature tours, and part of the new committee’s role will be to discuss ways to promote the canal as a tourist destination, Blanton said.

The feeder canal already is in a heavily used area, given its proximity to the city, Hahne said. If the city takes over its maintenance, usage will increase.

“[There are] a lot of ideas floating around. We’re just taking it one step at a time.”

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