Deep inside Hidden Creek Estates

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Trail talk. Between the venue and Promontory Ridge, the woods get even thicker.

UPDATE: At its meeting Wednesday night, the City of South Beloit planning commission unanimously voted against approving the pre-annexation of the Hidden Creek Estates event venue. However, the City Council approved the annexation at its June 21 meeting.

Once I'd driven up the driveway into Hidden Creek Estates for a media event and walked past the cottage, I realized this wedding venue is more intimate than I expected. The property at 13276 White School Road covers 30 acres, but it seems to be mostly woods. Yes, there's also a pond, an ongoing prairie restoration, and a field under cultivation, besides the ample wedding lawn where the owners promise to host no more than 250 guests. Some neighbors have criticized the Dude and Kerry Frank family, owners of this controversial venue, for being "sneaky and underhanded," for wanting to inject parties and crowds into their rural setting, so close to neighboring houses. But when the trees are leafed out for the summer and you're standing near the old barn, you can't see any neighboring houses. Many neighbors say they can clearly hear the music at the venue, however, and see the workers too. The news release says the "barn will serve as the idyllic rustic location for events like intimate weddings." Its capacity is rated at about 100 people, but that's upper and lower floors. Maybe 150 people could dance on the porch if they danced slowly and closely, but 'intimate' seems to be the operative word. 

Before it opens for business, Hidden Creek Estates is seeking special use permits and, as we reported, pre-annexation into the City of South Beloit. They were initially seeking annexation from the Village of Roscoe, but withdrew that request last month, saying they wouldn't be able to come to an agreement with the Village after all. Village of Roscoe City Administrator Scott Sanders told WIFR, "We were sorry to see the annexation process between Hidden Creek Estates and the Village of Roscoe break off before reaching its conclusion... We remain of the opinion that the Village of Roscoe is a more appropriate choice given the property’s proximity to our current municipal boundary." Sanders points out if that South Beloit annexes this property, which isn't adjacent to their current boundaries, it would effective block the Village of Roscoe from annexing land that is adjacent to the Village's boundaries, even one development, the Reserve, that was already covered by a pre-annexation agreement with the Village. 

The City of South Beloit Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA)/Planning Commission will hold a public meeting on Wednesday, June 16, at approximately 6:45 p.m., to consider the pre-annexation request. Because of the anticipated number of attendees, this part of the zoning meeting will be held at the South Beloit Fire Station, not at City Hall.

Kerry Frank began my tour of Hidden Creek Estates by telling me it was settled in 1839 by a family from New York. She had to ask Dude what the exact year was. He's studied the history more than she has, she says. They're a team, he says. The Frank family is only the eighth owner. Several neighbors such as the Rockers and Guth families are quite close to the ceremony site, but the Franks' own home on Rockton Road, which adjoins the venue, is one of the closest. The Franks had lived next door to the property for eight years before they bought it, always hoping to buy it if they could. When the owner, Joseph Butler, finally put it on the market in May 2020, Kerry Frank says he got three calls within five days from developers who, in essence, wanted to build a subdivision behind the Frank's back yard. Others, who also know Butler, dispute this account. But the Franks say this was the point at which they took action and bought the adjoining property that is now Hidden Creek Estates in June.

Zillow calculates that they paid too much for the property, which may be true, but at the time they say they didn't really know what they would do with it. They had money from selling a successful mobile documentation business, Comply365, which they had started in 2007. Like most start-ups, Comply365 wasn't successful right away. At one point, the family lived on $50 a week, and Dude moonlighted (literally) as a night auditor at Hilton Garden Inn in Rockford. But after they had overcome many hurdles, their technology was eventually used by over 50 airlines and rail companies, and helped make it possible for you to use "airplane mode" during a flight instead of having to turn off your phone completely.

Since selling their tech company, the Franks have invested in real estate, running Seed Real Estate LLC out of their home. But this property did not begin as an investment, though it has become a passion project for the family. Each member has a role in the venue and as a family they have devoted over 4,000 hours of labor, cleaning up the pond and restoring the natural prairie. They spent thousands of dollars renovating the barn, not because they counted on making it into a wedding venue despite all opposition, but because it was falling down and they wanted to keep it intact for their family. 

After hosting two weddings last summer for family and friends, Kerry Frank says the whole family decided it was a perfect wedding venue. Son Aaron told me he wanted to use his experience in the service and hospitality industries, and his interest in wines, so he asked his parents to go into business together. He became general manager for Hidden Creek Estates and the point man for the wine bar. By August, word was spreading of what they planned. Over the past year, the family has invested $1.6 million in the project. When I asked them how they spend their time when they're away from Hidden Creek Estates, they laughed but couldn't seem to think of anything else. Kerry Frank indicated that she'll be doing a lot of weeding of the prairie restoration until it gets established - in four years.

The Village of Roscoe didn't want Hidden Creek Estates to exceed 225 guests, and though the venue wanted the ability to host 300 guests or more, now that the venue is pursuing pre-annexation with the City of South Beloit, they are willing to settle for smaller capacity limits of 250 guests for weddings, family events, and corporate events. Most events will have fewer than 150 guests, many of them much fewer. The average size of an American wedding is 131 guests, according to The Knot, and that number is shrinking. 

The wine bar's capacity is much smaller than 150, of course, and the Franks say they want to open it "for the community a few afternoons and evenings per week" including wine tastings. They are asking the City of South Beloit for a special use permit as an "Outdoor Seasonal Venue with accessory food and drinks onsite." But they deny an interest in running a full-sized restaurant or bar. They plan to have a catering kitchen in the cottage and to offer wood-fired pizza in the wine bar.

The proposed parking lot will only have 75 spaces, so event planners will need to rent offsite shuttles to fill this place with anything close to a crowd. Old Settlers Days would not fit here. This is not Woodstock either. Their business model is to be an "elevated, intimate venue to gather with friends or celebrate life's most special moments in a beautiful natural setting." Holding rock concerts would somewhat affect the "serenity and beauty of the location [which is] central to the experience."

In a statement, Hidden Creek Estates has promised to comply with South Beloit noise ordinances and that begins with attracting events whose guests aren't particularly noisy. They are committed to hosting no more than one wedding per weekend  - not year-round, but maybe six months a year - at their proposed "Outdoor Seasonal Venue."  After all, it snows here, so year-round Outdoor activities at a Venue wouldn't be Seasonal or even Wise. And they won't work with a client who doesn't respect the venue's unique features - who isn't a "good fit," as they put it.

Some neighbors have claimed that previous gatherings in the Franks properties have included loud fireworks. Kerry Frank has denied that, adding that they will not allow any fireworks at weddings. Asked if her family may have shot off the fireworks from another property (they own a third lot adjacent to their home and the venue), she said only, "We have many neighbors in the neighborhood who shoot off fireworks. I enjoy watching them along with many other neighbors." Some neighbors have a different opinion about nearby fireworks displays.

While waiting for another reporter, Dude Frank fired up his golf cart to show me the wooded trails. The family cuts through on a short, private trail to get home quickly from the venue, since it's next door to them, but Dude says they usually don't ride the golf cart on the main trails, to keep from tearing them up. The trails are none too wide nor level. But in the words of Robert Frost, these woods are "lovely, dark and deep," and we rode through them for some time before finally reaching civilization in the form of the Promontory Ridge subdivision. At least, Dude told me that's where I was. All I could see were a few houses through the trees. It occurred to me that there would be an awful lot of trees - more than ten acres of trees - between those houses and any possible wedding receptions. And that brought back memories to me. For several years, my bedroom had been separated from the outdoor country music venue behind me by less than five acres of trees. I had forgotten that until recently, because it had hardly been any trouble. But neighbors on the eastern side of the property, closer to the ceremony site, have many fewer trees, and some say, effectively no screen at all. 

After the golf cart tour, we went back to the barn, where I interviewed Kerry Frank.

Why are you doing all this, spending all this time and money, when there's a chance that you might not get the approvals to open for business?

KERRY: Our family was super passionate about saving this place no matter what. This barn was about to collapse, the foundation was going in. And the woods, the pond, everything needed immediate attention. So for us, we want this to be part of our family legacy. I wanted to preserve the property no matter what. That's why we've invested the money, the time, and we really put our lives and our hearts and our souls. I mean, I've invested 1.6 million dollars and over 4000 personal man-hours of my family just working on this property, because we're so passionate about preserving it.

Has your vision changed? It seems like some of the people in the Village of Roscoe are saying this is not what you originally presented to them.

KERRY: No, my vision has always remained the same. I've been very consistent with my vision and what I want to do. I'm a business mind so I pretty much kind of have everything laid out.

How powerful do you feel? Do you feel you can make things go your way in the end?

KERRY: If anyone really understands the ordinances and laws... I've had to go through every single process that every other single person has. It's not an easy process and nothing's been made easy for me and that's fine. I don't expect anything different than to be treated as any other business that would come to South Beloit for permission. And so to me, it's really important that people understand that there are rules set forth, there are ordinances, there are laws, and those are really important for me.

The Winnebago County Engineer told me you still need an access permit from the County [even if annexed by South Beloit]. How do you plan to handle that?

KERRY: Basically, we're working with South Beloit and they're giving us all the guidance of all the ordinances that we need to comply with. And we're a hundred percent happy to comply with whatever ordinances that are required and written. That's just how business works, right? There are rules and regulations for a reason and once you read those rules and regulations, that's how we've done our plan and we've followed every step along the way.

How do you think your neighbors' lives will change after the weddings start?

KERRY: I really hope that there's minimal impact. We've worked really hard with sound people and we've come up with a really thoughtful plan to not have a high impact on the neighborhood. And I'm the closest neighbor too, right? [During an event that I'm not working], I'm going to be sitting at my deck at home too, right? And so our goal is just to really provide a great experience. I think it's going to be really great for the community overall.

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