Tri States Public Radio Staff
Five Part Series
Sun December 9, 2012
Turning Around the Downtown
Macomb is getting ready to work on its courthouse square. Repairs will be made to the streets and possibly the infrastructure underneath. The project gives the city, businesses, and residents a rare opportunity to re-examine the square and ensure it remains vibrant for decades to come.
The series “Turning Around the Downtown” takes a look at what some other western Illinois communities have done to reinvigorate their downtown districts.
Part 1: Saying Nay to the Nay-Sayers
No matter what a community tries to do, there will always be someone who says it should not be done.
“Those folks who just say, you know, this is a stupid way to spend money. It’s a waste of money,” said Rushville Mayor Scott Thompson.
Thompson said the city chose to move forward and renovate its downtown square. The brick streets around Central Park were redone while sidewalks were added or replaced.
The entire district has a fresh look while maintaining its historic character.
Thompson said more and more businesses and restaurants got behind the project as it progressed.
Quincy also heard from nay-sayers as it started the process of remaking its 75 block downtown district.
Director of Planning and Development Chuck Bevelheimer said some people questioned why the city put in so many new lights downtown. He said the city did so at the request of those who did not feel safe downtown at night. The new lights are one element in the city’s plan to create a more vibrant nightlife in the downtown.
The plan seems to be working. Noi Sonethongkham decided to move his business, One Restaurant and Bar, to the downtown.
“We’ve seen it change a lot since the time we opened. When we’re busy, everybody else is busy,” said Sonethongkham.
“It’s a little bit of synergy, which is a great thing. We’re trying to draw people downtown and I think we’ve been successful.”
Businessman Terry Austin, President of Austin Properties, has been redeveloping properties in downtown Quincy. He said the downtown was once grand and he believes it will soon be even better.
Part 2: Keeping Downtown Businesses in the Loop
Judy Baker, co-owner of Bakers Jewelry on Rushville’s square, said the downtown was in desperate need of a makeover. She supported the renovation plan and said her business was not hurt while the dust was flying the jackhammers were pounding.
“I thought the way it was handled, the construction company that did ours handled it well. I mean they were able to do it in phases to where it really didn't affect our business all that much,” Baker said.
A couple doors down, at South Side Home and Kitchen Emporium, co-owner Caryl Burke said she also supported the renovation from the beginning and made sure her business was prepared for a possible slowdown by maintaining a smaller than usual inventory.
Burke said business has picked up again now that the project is finished.
“I feel that it was worth it. I think given another year for everything to work out, we'll be even better. I think our future in Rushville is very good,” Burke said.
Mayor Scott Thompson said the city held public meetings and made sure news about the project was shared in the media. The engineers also made an extra effort to make sure downtown businesses knew what was going on each step of the way.
“What Hutchison Engineering did, and the project manager, they went door-to-door so that we could find ways to accommodate their needs throughout the entire project,” Thompson said.
The contractors made sure there was always a path to each business, even if that path was simply wood planks on the ground.
Another community that struggled with downtown woes is Jacksonville. It had to overcome significant hurdles because of what’s described as an “urban renewal debacle” from the mid-1970s.
The rebound began when Jacksonville Main Street was established in the late 1990s, and a major renovation of the downtown was undertaken in 2010.
Mayor Andy Ezard said there were some tough times for businesses during construction.
“It was hairy for a while. It wasn't real pleasant for them and they had some down times,” Ezard said.
“But the contractors were good about building up paths. When they were laying the sidewalk they would build up rock paths to get into the store and things. They didn't try to do too much all at once. They pinpointed areas and finished the job before they would come to the next area, which was important to the business.”
The city said when the project was completed in 2011, the downtown had more than 20 new and relocated businesses. Vacancies in the downtown -- which once were as high as 27% -- are now down to 7%.
The National Trust Main Street Center said Jacksonville’s downtown once was an example of what not to be. Now it’s considered the place to be.
Part 3: New Attractions, New Customers
Rushville added a sidewalk to the perimeter of Central Park when it renovated the downtown square. It might seem like a little detail, but the park now attracts and walkers and many other users.
“Central Park almost at times over this past summer looked like somebody’s front yard. Kids would actually come in and play. They’d bring toys. So we had better pedestrian traffic as a result,” said Mayor Scott Thompson.
All those people coming downtown are potential customers for the district’s businesses. You might think those people won’t spend money, but Travis Brown, Executive Director of the Historic Quincy Business District, said that is not true. He said Quincy converted the fountain in Washington Park to a splash pad and, after initial misgivings, downtown business owners have come to love it.
“They just thought it would be the free pool and get people that just didn’t want to spend money,” Brown said.
“But they have said since day one when that thing opened it has actually increased their sales because it’s brought families back down to the park.”
Quincy is also combining the arts and history as part of its downtown revitalization. The city has a downtown arts corridor and architecturally interesting buildings that date back to the mid-1800s.
Mayor John Spring said there is a long history of the arts being an important to Quincy and the region.
“For every dollar that is spent on the arts here, there’s probably three to four dollars in return for our community. So it’s big business, it really is big business here for us,” Spring said.
Jacksonville also used the arts as an attraction. The group Wall Dogs painted a series of murals in the downtown district in 2006.
Judy Tighe, Executive Director of Jacksonville Main Street, said that project was undertaken before the city had a downtown revitalization plan.
“It was done to beautify an ugly parking lot is how it originally started. We were sitting in a meeting and somebody looked out the window and went, ‘That parking lot is just really ugly. It’s just barren. It’s a brick wall. There’s nothing to it. I wish there was something we could do to beautify it,’” Tighe said.
The murals all pay tribute to the community’s heritage, as does an arch over South Main Street leading into the downtown district. The arch is part of a Ferris wheel made by Jacksonville-based Eli Bridge, which is one of just six Ferris wheel manufacturers in the world.
Part 4: Show Me the Money
Developers such as Terry Austin are investing in Quincy’s downtown by rehabbing old buildings for residential and commercial uses. The city, in turn, offers a variety of incentives to entice developers. They include a façade improvement program and a revolving loan fund.
Director of Planning and Development Chuck Bevelheimer said if you spend a little, you get a lot.
“And then if they do decide to sell it, fine. Then it’s renovated, it’s got the 50-grand in renovations, the property values have increased, and we end up with a good product because it’s in our TIF District,” Bevelheimer said.
“And so now the TIF District is benefiting, which is allowing us to go do another project somewhere else. So that’s the benefit that we see is by a little investment on our part we’re really seeing big returns.”
Rushville’s downtown renovation was helped a great deal by outside sources. The federal government spent $1.6 million because the city agreed to keep its brick streets. Another $150,000 came from the state, the city borrowed $500,000, and the city covered the remaining expenses with money from its TIF District fund.
“So there’s no general fund money. No tax increases. No special assessments. Nothing to pay for this,” said Mayor Scott Thompson.
“It was a long process and this is where you talk about patience. It’s key. But to the general fund it was painless. But believe me, use all the resources you have available to you.”
Macomb Mayor Mike Inman said his city will try to do that. Aldermen agreed to issue $7.5 million in bonds to pay for street repairs citywide. $2.5 million is targeted for the downtown.
The bonds will be repaid with revenue generated by the city’s one-cent sales tax for infrastructure.
Inman said it’s also possible more funding sources will become available.
“We’re hearing from time-to-time of another capitol bill at the state level, another stimulus package at the federal level,” Inman said. “Who knows whether they will come or not but we need to be prepared to avail ourselves of those opportunities if the come.”
He said the city can be prepared by completing the engineering work ahead of time so it’s ready to move if state or federal money becomes available.
Part 5: What’s the Plan for Macomb?
A group of city leaders from Macomb recently toured Rushville, Jacksonville, and Quincy to gather some ideas for re-energizing their courthouse square.
The Macomb project likely won’t begin for two or three years, and Mayor Mike Inman said the square simply needs a facelift rather than a major overhaul. He likes what the city has and said the goal now is to make it even better.
“We want to be as comprehensive as we can in dealing with it,” Inman said. “It’s the heart of our city. It’s the core of the community,”
Inman said the city could widen sidewalks to allow for outdoor dining and to make it even easier for those with disabilities to get around. He said the city has also talked about removing a row of parking, which would allow for wider sidewalks and/or make it easier for larger vehicles to drive through.
The ultimate goal is to breathe new life into the downtown.
“I think what we heard consistently from our trip (to Rushville, Jacksonville, and Quincy) was not so much ‘If we build it they will come’ but the idea that if the city is willing to invest, then business, private sector investment follows.”
Inman is willing to consider the idea of painting murals on buildings but questions whether the city, a private group, or volunteers will be responsible for maintaining the murals.
Inman hoped the revitalization will help make the downtown district sustainable for many more decades.
“We want it to be an attraction. We want it to be a center of commerce. We want it to be a gathering space, something it’s always been and will continue to be for as long as we can sustain it.”
The city will also continue accepting public input as it prepares for the process of Turning Around the Downtown.