Despite a stubbornly slow economic recovery, it was a busy year for business in McHenry County.
Much of the local economic news was mixed. McHenry County's unemployment rate fell to lowest level since 2008. Even so, weak market conditions forced some longtime businesses to close or lay off workers. And though housing activity picked up dramatically, home prices continued to sink.
Here are the Northwest Herald's picks for the top 10 business stories of 2012:
1. SAGE PRODUCTS SOLD: In 2012, some of the county's largest private companies traded hands, including Knaack LLC and Wells Manufacturing Co. But the Sage deal came as a surprise to many.
Early in November, Chicago private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners announced that it planned to purchase Cary-based Sage Products Inc., a disposable health care products maker and one of the largest area employers with more than 700 employees. The deal was completed in mid-December.
The sale was big news not only because of the size of the company and its long history in McHenry County, but also because of the financial support the company and its executives provide to local institutions and nonprofit organizations.
"We look forward to growing, investing, innovating, hiring and giving back to our community," Sage Products President and Chief Operating Officer Scott Brown told the Northwest Herald in November. "Sage will remain in Cary and Sage will continue to be a good neighbor in McHenry County for years to come.”
Officials at Madison Dearborn Partners said they planned to help Sage Products grow worldwide.
2. HOME PRICES CONTINUE SLUMP: Despite record-low mortgage rates and signs of a rebound, the county's real estate market remained depressed in 2012.
The median home sale price in McHenry County dropped 8 percent in 2012, according to latest year-to-date statistics available from the Illinois Association of Realtors. The median price fell from $153,750 in 2011 to $141,500 in 2012.
The market sagged even as housing activity had jumped more than 30 percent as of October, according to statistics from the Heartland Realtor Organization.
While residential housing inventory declined, foreclosures and short sales continued to push prices down.
Through November, there had been 2,884 foreclosure filings in McHenry County in 2012, compared with 2,906 in all of 2011, according to the McHenry County Circuit Clerk's Office.
3. UNEMPLOYMENT TUMBLES: McHenry County's unemployment rate dropped to 7 percent in September, down from 8.9 percent during the same month in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and the Illinois Department of Employment Security. The county’s unemployment rate in September was its lowest since December 2008, when it was 7 percent.
In November, the county's unemployment rate stood at 7.5 percent, down from 8.7 percent during the same month in 2011, according to figures from the state.
The soft economy continued to take a toll on local businesses in 2012.
About 175 local jobs were lost after two area plastics manufacturers announced they planned to close in May. Richco Inc. of Harvard, and Diversapack of Marengo each shuttered operations. The Richco move was part of a company-wide reorganization. Nearly all of Diversapack ’s 90 layoffs were permanent.
In September, Follett Corp. announced that it planned to sell subsidiary Book Wholesalers Inc. in McHenry, resulting in the loss of about 90 local jobs.
Small businesses weren't spared. Marengo's oldest business, Levin's Shoes and Dry Goods, said in January that it planned to close after 90 years in town. Vacancies continued to dot commercial spaces throughout the county in 2012.
4. HARVARD BANK SAVES LOCAL CONTROL: Harvard Savings Bank shareholders voted “by an overwhelming majority” in May to re-elect directors their board nominated, showing opposition to a New York-based group of hedge funds.
At the bank's annual shareholders meeting, President and CEO Duffield Seyller and retired businessman Richard Walker retained their positions on the board. Peter Wilson, a nominee of The Stilwell Group, was left off the board. Stilwell and Harvard Illinois Bancorp, the parent of the Harvard bank, were locked in a proxy battle. Stilwell had called for a sale of the company through a series of advertisements and letters to shareholders criticizing the bank's management. The board rebutted in various letters and advertisements.
5. BUSINESS AWARDS: Local organizations celebrated the accomplishments of dozens of local businesses in 2012. Several longtime businesses were honored this year.
Black Diamond Plumbing and Mechanical Inc., of Crystal Lake, received the Robert O. Covey Business of the Year Award in June from the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce.
The McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce's selected Gary Lang Auto Group as its Business of the Year at the organization's inagural Red Carpet Awards event in November.
And the McHenry County Economic Development Corporation named three Business Champions for 2012: Impact Plastics Inc. in Huntley, All-Rite Spring Co. in Spring Grove, and Chroma Corp. in McHenry.
6. THEATER EXPANSION: The $4.8 million project to expand the Woodstock Theatre got under way this year. The theater is expanding from four screens to eight and restoring the 85-year-old auditorium to its original form, including an authentic dome ceiling. Tivoli Enterprises, which owns the theater, has set late summer 2013 as a tentative completion date for the project. The city of Woodstock has helped so far by allocating $100,000 in tax increment financing funds toward Main Street improvements.
Meanwhile, McHenry Outdoor Theater was under new management this summer. In the fall, the operator began an effort to raise $130,000 to make a switch to equipment that will support a digital movie format instead of its current 35 mm set-up.
7. FREEZE AND DROUGHT: Freezing spring temperatures followed by scorching summer heat hurt the county's agricultural industry.
Early warm temperatures had apple trees flowering ahead of schedule this spring, just in time to get hit with a nasty stretch of April frost and cold temperatures that wiped out the majority of area apples, leaving entire orchards with no choice but to close for the year.
A record-hot July amid a drought that plagued much of the country ravaged corn and other grains, dried up profits for local producers and pushed up feed prices.
8. PLAZA GETS NEW LIFE: A $2 million renovation project transformed the Crystal Lake Plaza shopping center along Route 14 into a fresh retail destination and helped bring new businesses and shoppers to the area. In addition to parking lot improvements and exterior remodeling, the year-long overhaul added new benches, lighting, brick paver sidewalks, awnings, landscaping, and an electronic messaging sign that is shared by merchants. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renovated plaza was held in late October.
9. TARNISHED JEWEL:Jewel-Osco parent Supervalu Inc. ousted CEO Craig Herkert in July as the grocery chain, which has an estimated 1,600 employees in McHenry County, looked to right its business. Supervalu has about 4,400 stores in the U.S. Since Herkert was replaced by Chairman Wayne Sales, who took on the additional roles of president and CEO, the company's stock has fluctuated with rumors of a buyout. Supervalu, one of the nation’s largest grocery operators – and owner of Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Shop ‘N Save, Albertson’s – put itself up for sale as a whole or in pieces in July. In October, the company acknowledged it was in “active dialogue with several parties.”
10. TWINKIES FAREWELL: Hundreds of customers made quick work of emptying the shelves of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Wonder Bread at Hostess Brands' Dolly Madison Bakery Outlet in Crystal Lake in November after the company announced it filed a motion to liquidate with U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The company claimed striking workers across the country crippled its ability to maintain production. The unraveling of the iconic company eliminated 18,500 jobs,
The Crystal Lake Jewel-Osco was one of the last stores in the country to get a shipment of Hostess products. A shipment of Twinkies arrived in Crystal Lake at 5 a.m. on Dec. 11 and was gone by 7 a.m.
By the end of the year, Hostess Brands was narrowing down bids for its brands in bankruptcy court.