WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Macomb’s Square: Bringing Back Business

Aug 18, 2013

There are roughly a dozen empty storefronts on and near Macomb’s courthouse square.  The former DJ’s Steakhouse and Macomb Bootlegger are just two examples of buildings that remain vacant.

Meanwhile, the city is working on a plan to improve the look of the square, hoping to make it more appealing to businesses and visitors.

The three part series Bringing Back Business looks at the past, present, and possible future of the square.

Part 1 – Macomb in the Days of Old

Plenty of information about the square’s history can be found in the Archives on the sixth floor of Malpass Library at Western Illinois University. It has a plentiful amount of photographs, and its collection of historical memorabilia opens a window to the city’s past.

Kathy Nichols, Senior Library Specialist in the Archives, has lived in Macomb since she was an infant. She said as she was growing up, the empty storefronts didn’t stay vacant for long.

When I was little, we were definitely getting more and more chain stores all the time

Nichols said an evolution has taken place on the square; one that can be noticed through the buildings themselves. She said there was one generation of wood buildings on the square and there have now been two generations of brick buildings.

“Each building has stories attached to it;” said Nichols, “from the beginning and who built it and who’s been in it, to what businesses have occupied it and what changes have been made to it.”

Much like Nichols, Fourth Ward Alderman Dave Dorsett and Mayor Mike Inman have each been in Macomb for more than 50 years. They each remember the businesses that were on the square as they were growing up.

Fourth Ward Alderman Dave Dorsett
Credit Rich Egger

“The downtown life did used to be significantly different,” said Dorsett. “When I was young, it was the center of all retail trade.”

Inman said, “When I was growing up, the square was the business center for the community.  There were grocery stores; there were any number of retails components: a hardware store, paint store, and jewelry stores.”

Mike Inman, Macomb Mayor
Credit Rich Egger

Both agree that the square is much different than it used to be, but it is still in good shape.

Part 2 – Present Day Square

Sarah Wallick, Downtown and Community Outreach Coordinator
Credit Chris Lovingood / Tri States Public Radio

Macomb Bootlegger, DJ’s Steakhouse, and Vintage Accents. Each was once an active business on the square, but the buildings they occupied now sit empty. The Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Development Corporation is keeping track of these and other empty storefronts.

When I was growing up, the square was the business center for the community

Sarah Wallick, Downtown and Community Outreach Coordinator, is one of the people who’s working to fill these spaces. Wallick said she has a recruitment plan she’s been working on to bring more people downtown.

Wallick believes businesses see pros and cons to the courthouse square, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I think the historic district is more of an incentive for ownership,” said Wallick. “(But) It’s challenging to want to have somebody that wants to come in and buy a building that was built in the 1890’s or early 1900’s”

One of these older buildings currently houses Hooked on U, a knitting supply store. Owner Emily Zoha Hawk said she has an idea of what she would like to see added to the square.

Emily Zoha Hawk, Hooked on U Owner
Credit Chris Lovingood / Tri States Public Radio

“I think more retail businesses, and less service businesses,” said Zoha Hawk. “It’s nice to see back and one point where there wasn’t a lot of [service businesses] where you could walk around and get all your shopping done in one stop.”

Part 3 – What’s to Come

You might have seen Angelica Fuentes working the register at Guadalajara Bar and Grill. She’ll soon be found working at another location: La Fuente Bar and Grill on the east side of the courthouse square.

She will manage the new restaurant in addition to managing Guadalajara.

Fuentes has lived in Macomb for two years and said she saw the potential for another restaurant while on the square with her kids.

“I had been looking for a place here in town,” said Fuentes, “One day we were walking around and I said ‘Huh, something different has to be there. We have to come up for something different for Macomb.’”

Fuentes said she’s anxious to get the place up and running.

“I can’t wait,” said Fuentes. “People come to Guadalajara and ask when we are going to be opening [La Fuente], and they’re just ready for it and can’t wait. I appreciate all of their support.”

Fuentes said there’s another restaurant venture she wants to explore that is closer to the WIU campus. However, she said that idea is only in the planning stages.

La Fuente is only one change coming to the square. An even bigger project is being undertaken by the city, which will repave the streets and is now in the process of deciding what cosmetic changes to make.

The city’s revitalization committee has selected a plan to present to the city council in the coming weeks. If accepted, construction will begin in 2016.

View of the Square
Credit Chris Lovingood / Tri States Public Radio

Once finished in the winter of that year, businesses and visitors can look forward to new streets, sidewalks, and landscaping on the square.  Parking places will be reconfigured too, though that will result in fewer spots.

But only time will tell if the aesthetic improvements are enough to bring back business.