Developing downtown Central Illinois

CENTRAL ILLINOIS -- When people started moving from cities to suburbs, shopping malls became popular. It became a major hit for downtown areas across the country. Now, things are changing. Some downtowns are finding their sweet spot again.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of feet stroll through downtown Urbana everyday. Van Boyd has probably seen a lot of them up close. He's been with the store, Heel to Toe, since 1987. That's when the store moved to downtown Urbana.

"I've seen a lot of businesses come and go. Running a small business is tough. It's really, really tough and not getting any easier," says Van Boyd.

Despite that, Heel to Toe has grown to take over four storefronts.

"We are in an economic island and the economy here is pretty good. So many, lively little rural towns that have no place really to shop, they're going to come down here," he says.

City officials say they can pinpoint a growth in downtown development starting around 2013, bringing some more restaurants, stores and tech companies.

"The presence of the University of Illinois is a big factor that we have great talent, great minds that come visit this community and many choose to start a business here," says Brandon Boys, Urbana's economic development manager.

Urbana isn't alone. Champaign city leaders created a downtown TIF district in the 1980's. The money was used to help fix up buildings and build business.

They also implemented a "downtown plan" in 2005. It's all worked. City officials say there are more than 30 locally-owned restaurants within a few blocks of each other.

"People see one business be successful and they want to be a part of it. You know, the creation of our outdoor cafe program, where all of a sudden it brought people back to the streets in downtown," says TJ Blakeman, Champaign's senior planner for economic development.

Even though Champaign's downtown TIF program comes to an end this year, officials say they're not worried.

"We hope that the market is strong enough for downtown to continue to support itself and we're getting very close to that," says Blakeman.

You can drive through a lot of small towns in Central Illinois and find a line of empty downtown storefronts. It might make Champaign and Urbana an exception to the rule or, they're at the forefront.

A quick Google search and you'll find article after article with advice on how to reinvigorate the hearts of small town America. A lot of those articles have been written in the last few years.

"People understand that the downtown areas are important and it's kind of a new mindset. It used to be develop, develop, develop. Now it's reuse, reuse, reuse. I think that's a tremendous thing," says Van Boyd.

"People like being in places where they feel that they have an identity in that place, where they feel like they relate to others in a space and sometimes malls or high traffic corridors can lose that sense of identity and space," says Boys.

There's no doubt, the formula for fixing a downtown isn't perfect. As Boyd describes it, "It all ebbs and flows."

And no one is trying to compete directly with malls. These areas recognize what they are, and what they can't be.

"We've struggled some to build a strong retail center, where North Prospect of course has a strong retail center," says Blakeman.

Boyd says Urbana will soon need a big ticket item. He says niche stores and restaurants only draw a certain crowd. He wants to see something bigger, which is why he's keeping a close eye on what happens with the old Landmark Hotel.

"I understand the hesitation in monetary cost, but something has to happen over there," he says.

Attached to the hotel is Lincoln Square Mall. There are a couple popular spots inside, and a few new ones, but there's still a lot of space to fill. There will only be more space when Carle and Health Alliance move out.

"One of the challenges for our downtown is going to be office space. You can also look at that as an opportunity. Hopefully we'll have some of these smaller businesses that are growing, that can take advantage of this opportunity," says Boyd.

Despite any challenges, these areas have learned to thrive.

"Downtown is a special place. It is, in my mind, the heart and soul of a community," says Blakeman.

And they've also guaranteed that feet, young and old, will walk the streets for years to come.

"I think things are building. We're not declining, we're building, and I think that's good. We just need to keep the momentum going," says Van Boyd.

Urbana city officials say, once they've figured out what to do with all of the space they currently have, they'll then worry about new development.

Champaign leaders have started a fringe TIF district focusing on rebuilding the neighborhoods around downtown, including midtown, which connects downtown Champaign with the UI's campus.

So what are other cities doing to develop their downtown areas? Also in Champaign County, Rantoul has offered micro-loans to small businesses. The interest rate is low which is an incentive for business owners.

In Piatt County, downtown Monticello has added more than a dozen businesses in the last year. They also have a "business bootcamp;" a program for future entrepreneurs.

In Macon County, Decatur city leaders just finished a big streetscape project downtown. The $14 million project revamped streets, parking and more.

Finally, in Vermilion County, Danville city planners are working on figuring out a new downtown plan. They created their last one in 2003. They're also trying to get money to complete plans for the riverfront and create a downtown TIF district. 

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