Styf: The evolution of post-Motorola Harvard

The driveway was plowed, and across the snow-covered field was the enormous campus with flags flying high.

From a distance, the once-$100 million Motorola corporate campus in Harvard that employed 5,000 workers at its height almost looked functional.

There were parking lot repairs last year, remember.

But the lights have been off since 2014 and the parking lot sits empty.

Since the facility closed nearly 15 years ago, plenty has changed, especially phones. But despite countless efforts to resurrect the campus, this plot of land hasn’t.

It’s become as much a symbol of Harvard as Harmilda, the fiberglass cow downtown that’s the Milk Day mascot.

Toronto businessman Edward Gong is the current owner. But he’s run into some trouble remaining legitimate.

Gong is being charged with fraudulently selling securities to Chinese citizens, so the man trying to change Harvard’s image and its future, Mayor Michael Kelly, follows along with the Canadian news like the rest of us.

Kelly has never had much contact with Gong, although investigators did come to Harvard asking about him, and all Kelly has is a still incomplete Harvard Enterprise Zone application.

If it was completed, Gong would be like other businesses coming to Harvard and get an eight-year exemption on any increase in property value for property tax purposes, something both the city and schools have signed up for to jump-start Harvard’s future.

While the rest of McHenry County is losing population, new Harvard Superintendent Corey Tafoya said his district added 140 students this year with 40 more a year expected over the next five years.

There’s incentive for new homes to be built, with the city recently cutting residential building fees in half after only four new homes were built in the past seven years combined.

Which brings us to another unique part of Harvard, its citizens.

You might think of Harvard as farm country, but that’s not all it is.

It’s also nearly 50 percent Hispanic – 65.5 percent in the school system – compared with the county, which is less than 13 percent Hispanic.

But that also can be an opportunity, as Harvard schools are set to get more funding under the state’s new funding model, while Tafoya and the district are getting more aggressive with expectations at the school, where about 3 in 10 students still are learning the English language.

Plenty of classwork is set up for dual languages, helping the Spanish speakers learn English and vice versa from an earlier age.

“It’s all about expectations and the kind of work that students can do, creating a new idea of what education can be,” said Tafoya, who previously worked in Woodstock District 200 and Community High School District 155. “We have challenges that I never experienced. But we’re going to take control of the things that we can control.”

That Hispanic population wasn’t always prioritized by the city and schools, but now it’s being embraced as an asset.

The city is printing all forms and materials in both English and Spanish and has hired bilingual staff.

As for commerce, it’s taking baby steps.

Dollar General recently opened. Pedigree Ovens, which makes dog biscuits, opened and has 65 employees.

Culver’s is expected to break ground in April or May and hopes to open this summer.

Kelly hopes it’s just the beginning. Seven acres of property near Dollar General recently was donated, and the city hopes to attract a full-service grocer.

A hotel, movie theater or other business also would be great, Kelly said.

What’s clear is this isn’t the Harvard of 2003, back before most cellphones even flipped. Just after car phones and bag phones went out of style.

At this point, it’s certainly OK to be skeptical any remotely large-scale business will fill the old Motorola campus. Who knows what level of disrepair it’s even in?

There have been a lot of misses over the past 15 years, from the water park to the trucking company to the smartphone manufacturer.

But even without a Motorola replacement, Harvard is on the right track.

• Northwest Herald Editor Jon Styf can be reached at or 815-526-4630.

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