Design plans for rehabbing a historic hotel, building two brewpubs and redeveloping two vacant downtown 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 La Salle, where people once would make the roughly 100-mile trip from Chicago to La Salle, stay in the Kaskaskia Hotel and shop for items such as jewelry.
“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.”
It’s part of the reason why the couple plans to invest roughly $150 million in just La Salle and Ottawa with what they consider “transformational” projects for not just the cities, but Starved Rock Country and beyond.
As communities such as Ottawa, La Salle, Streator and Princeton continue to focus on improving their downtown offerings, the developers believe the efforts are a sign of progress for economic development in the region.
The design blueprints in their office represent the company's investment in small communities including Ottawa, La Salle, Lockport and more.
Limberger and 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.
In Starved Rock Country, a larger tourism potential has been identified.
“Where there is a good lifestyle, this will attract business,” Limberger said.
CL Enterprises beginnings
Carus and Limberger's business – and their relationship – began with the falling of the Berlin Wall.
Previously government-owned businesses in the former East Germany were being sold off or closed and the Germany-born Limberger was looking to purchase a couple. One business that piqued his interest was a potassium permanganate company. But he had little knowledge of the business and was directed to “a company outside of Chicago,” which was Carus Chemical in La Salle.
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.
“Berlin was changing a lot in those days because of the wall having fallen down. It was being rebuilt and becoming revived and everything,” Inga said. “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.
Inga said she fell in love after discovering they shared interests, values and beliefs.
“We found out we had a lot in common, but we’re very different,” Inga said. “He’s much more American and I’m more German than he is, really.”
“I’m the American in the family,” Peter added with a laugh.
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, where 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. This was around the financial crash of 2008 and the two decided to invest in a familiar place.
"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.”
Ironically, by investing in something they knew they also invested in something they didn’t – a farm just south of Ottawa.
The two were new to farming but considered it a stable asset unlikely to lose value, and many were willing to lend help in getting started.
Their interest in real estate investment evolved from an economic discussion they were invited to by La Salle businessman Dick Janko.
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.
He was already familiar with the area’s proximity to Chicago, where he had lived briefly in the 1970s, as well as the 3 million people who visit Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks every year, but learned more about the region’s history such as the Westclox clock manufacturers and the 5,000 people who had worked there.
“The more we learned the more we were convinced it is good to be here,” Limberger said. “In business, sometimes you start something and then you get scared because you know it’s going to be an uphill battle. 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 at 217 Marquette St. in La Salle, and an interest in restoring the historic building and restoring it to its former glory.
The former six-story hotel closed in 2001, but CL Enterprises plans to reopen 100 elegant rooms, 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.
Just to the east in Ottawa, they've 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.
And they've increased their investment in Ottawa with plans to build a boutique hotel along the riverfront as the city prepares to develop the area to include a harbor and amphitheater.
At the same time, they’ve looked at doing more with manufacturing in the Midwest.
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 La Salle 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 but also from a business point of view is to create more jobs,” Limberger said.
Limberger said he has noticed an uptick in the country's manufacturing jobs, but noted the importance for high schools to be introduced to workforce training and create partnerships with businesses to offer apprenticeship programs.
Possible then and now
CL Enterprises continues to assess how best to capitalize on existing downtown infrastructure, and they hope others will consider doing the same.
They are hosting a free seminar featuring Chuck Marohn Jr., founder and president of Strong Towns, at 6 p.m. Tuesday in rooms 124-125 at Illinois Valley Community College, 815 Orlando Smith St. in Oglesby. Marohn will share his thoughts on how small communities can not only survive, but thrive, in the current economy.
Through focusing on what communities have to offer, he believes central cities can return to their former prominence and become booming economic engines again.
"Our thought is, 'If it was possible 100 years ago, it must be possible today," Limberger said. "There is no reason that it couldn't be back to that, when everything was extremely prosperous."