Design plans for rehabbing a historic hotel, building two brewpubs and redeveloping two vacant department store buildings adorn cubicle walls inside CL Enterprises in La Salle.
Co-owners Peter Limberger and Inga Carus have made it their mission to do “big things in small towns” due in part to a belief that downtowns are untapped economic engines. They see the resurgence of once-bustling downtowns in places like LaSalle, where people once would make the roughly 100-mile trip from Chicago, stay in the Kaskaskia Hotel and take in the local atmosphere.
“And there’s no reason why it cannot be back to that situation,” Limberger said. “Under a little bit different circumstances because the world has changed, but actually even better because the world has changed and people are looking for different things.”
Carus and Limberger plan to invest roughly $150 million in La Salle and Ottawa with what they consider “transformational” projects, not just for the cities, but Starved Rock Country and beyond.
As communities such as Ottawa, La Salle, Streator and Princeton continue to focus on revitalizing their downtown districts, the developers believe the efforts are a sign of progress for economic development in the region.
In Starved Rock Country, it starts with tourism. Starved Rock State Park and Matthiessen State Park attract millions of visitors every year, building a broader awareness of the area that could lead to yet more growth.
“Where there is a good lifestyle, this will attract business,” Limberger said.
CL Enterprises beginnings
Carus and Limberger's business – and their relationship – began after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Previously government-owned businesses in the former East Germany were being sold off or closed and the German-born Limberger was looking to buy. He wound up connecting with Carus Chemical in LaSalle as he gathered information.
Limberger met with Inga’s father, Blouke, before Inga teamed up with Peter in 1996 to make two bids to the German government. Both were rejected, and the two parted ways.
Peter assisted Carus Chemical over the years with international expansion, but Inga and Peter would not reconnect until 2005 when Inga was on a sales trip to Berlin.
“We had no clue where to stay and I thought ‘(Peter) will know where to stay. And if we’re lucky he’ll invite us to dinner.’ And all of that happened,” Inga said with a smile.
The two married in 2007, and Peter initially stayed in Germany to watch over his manufacturing businesses in automation and robotics systems. The family, including Inga’s adopted children, 19-year-old Nicola and 17-year-old Mariana, eventually moved back to the area, and Peter joined them after selling his businesses.
What small towns offer
The two discussed starting a business together in America. That idea ultimately became CL Enterprises.
“I thought it was a wonderful idea," Inga said. "It was exciting to me because I had never started a business before.”
As Limberger and Carus scouted communities to invest in, they kept coming back to the Midwest and Starved Rock Country.
"The Midwest is, from my view coming from another country, a good place to operate a business because of the stability of people, the attitude and the prototypical hard-working Midwesterner," Limberger said. "Solid people with their feet on the ground.”
Limberger’s experience with running businesses in Germany was seen as an asset by others and Limberger further learned more about what the area had to offer.
“In business, sometimes you start something and then you get scared because you know it’s going to be an uphill battle," Limberger said. "I can safely say, even in very ambitious projects like the Kaskaskia project, the more we do the more confident we get.”
Limberger credited Blouke for gaining a sense of that potential early on, with the purchase of the Kaskaskia Hotel and Conference Center and an interest in restoring the historic building and returning it to its former glory.
The former six-story hotel closed in 2001, but CL Enterprises plans to reopen 100 elegant rooms, a restaurant and historic Side Bar, as well as introduce a rooftop event space for up to 100 guests and a state-of-the-art conference center.
To the east in Ottawa, they're invested in restoring the city's downtown Carson and Woolworth buildings to feature a 12,500-square-foot rooftop space and retail shopping on the ground floor and potentially open access on the north side where visitors can spill out on West Jackson Street, and by extension into Ottawa's Washington Square. Limberger said he remains in “good contact” with the city regarding the development and hopes to have an agreement with city officials soon, similar to the one he has received from the city of La Salle regarding the Kaskaskia project.
They've also increased their investment in Ottawa by planning to build a boutique hotel along Ottawa's riverfront as the city prepares to develop the area to include a harbor and amphitheater.
Originally, they discussed ideas for a bakery or chocolate manufacturing company, but instead invested in Tangled Roots Brewing Co., which opened in Ottawa in 2016 along with the brewpub The Lone Buffalo at 812 LaSalle St. This venture will expand to include Lockport and La Salle brewpubs.
They also invested in Starved Rock Wood Products in Mendota, formerly Illinois Valley Mill Works, which grew from 15 employees to 120 and has become the most modern and advanced woodwork business in Illinois.
“We firmly believe the best social program one can create politically," Limberger said. "But also from a business point of view, is to create more jobs.”