Waukegan’s Harbor Cleanup Revitalizes City Scene

The Takeaway: Harbor’s clean bill of health strengthens the lakefront’s appeal as a recreational and cultural hub for the community.

On Lake Michigan, a large-scale cleanup and revitalization effort has transformed Waukegan’s formerly contaminated harbor and underused lakefront into a magnet for thousands of visitors, 100-plus recreational and cultural happenings yearly, and a multimillion-dollar business investment. NOAA and the Illinois Coastal Management Program helped the City of Waukegan and Waukegan Port District turn this decades-long vision into a reality.

Topping the list of appreciators is Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham. “Waukegan’s lakefront is one of the most amazing resources, and we strive to make it the primary destination for arts, culture, and recreation in Northern Illinois,” says Cunningham. “We know that the significant investments that are being made to maintain the natural spaces, address environmental concerns, and improve the quality of the experience at our beach and at our harbor are showing great signs of success.”

A few highlights illustrate the magnitude of this success:

  • The harbor is decontaminated. This decades-long effort included the dredging of 124,000 cubic yards of sediment that contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), a cancer-causing agent. It was led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • With coastal program support, the city and port have ensured a well-managed beach and last year held 134 public activities that ranged from morning yoga to concerts at the Stiner Pavilion.
  • Waukegan also hosts 15 waterfront festivals annually that attract more than 250,000 people and give local businesses a boost. Weekend beach parking permits often sell out, even with the expanded parking capacity. On the Fourth of July alone, beach parking permits jumped by 500 over the previous Independence Day.
  • The new $5 million Bay Marine Chicago Yachting Center now graces the lakefront. A changed ordinance allows food trucks as part of the planning process. Other planning aims include residential, retail, recreational, and working-lakefront elements.
  • Waterfront attractions are drawing a more diverse crowd than ever. At the 2018 Lake Michigan Water Trail event, funded by the coastal program, city and port officials debuted an ADA-accessible canoe and kayak launch. Many of the 200-plus participants that day were paddling Lake Michigan for the first time.

Area revitalization efforts continue, with city officials seeking to boost connectivity to the downtown district, improve historical information, and add bike paths and blueway trails.

NOAA grants for this initiative totaled $285,000, and the Illinois Coastal Management Program supplied an additional $95,000 through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The state coastal program currently works with the EPA to monitor the cleaned-up areas. The coastal program also provided technical assistance with lakefront, port district, sustainable shorelines, and dune management planning efforts. Other funding partners include the City of Waukegan and Port of Waukegan. (2019)

Partners: City of Waukegan, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program, Waukegan Port District–Harbor, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative