Macomb, IL – Macomb's Courthouse Square was once the main business district in the city, but that changed long ago. Nonetheless, there is plenty of opportunity for the square to remain a vibrant business district. News Director Rich Egger takes a look at the future of the square in the five part series "The Heart of the Community."
Part 1 - Business Veterans on the Square
A dozen or more storefronts on and around the square are vacant. The recession is a factor, but veteran business owners on the square believe steps can be taken to make sure the downtown remains a vibrant business district.
Clay Hinderliter, owner of Middle Earth, said businesses on the square need to innovate to remain viable. His business shares the large former JC Penney building with three other businesses, and Hinderliter said he's expanded his customer base through the web.
Hinderliter, who is also Macomb's Seventh Ward Alderman, believes Macomb's square is still hanging in there.
"My sales people who come in from all over the place - have five, seven, nine state areas - have told us time and time again this is one of the most vibrant squares they see in their travels," Hinderliter said.
Linda Cox, owner of New Copperfield's Book Service, said events such as Dickens on the Square and the Al Sears Jazz Festival bring in customers. Other events, such as Heritage Days, don't. But she said all are beneficial in the long run.
"We're trying to build community. Ultimately those people will shop with us if they feel connected to us. That's part of the reason I think some of these things are important," Cox said.
Mary Clements, owner of Vintage Accents, said businesses such as Ford Hopkins Health Mart, Nelson's Clothing Store and others make the Macomb square unique. She would like to see more retail and specialty stores on the square and said the new historic district should help.
Clements said, "So many people come to this town and they talk about the courthouse and how pretty it is, and what potential there is here. They can see that it's not thriving, but a lot of small towns aren't right now. Part of it's the economy and part of it is that we need to pull together.
"The Macomb Courthouse Square should be the heart of downtown. It should be the heart of Macomb and the community."
Clements, Cox, and Dave Dorsett, owner of The Wine Sellers, all believe it's up to merchants and property owners to properly maintain their buildings, sweep sidewalks, and otherwise care for the square.
Dorsett, who is Macomb's Fifth Ward Alderman, also said the city should redouble its efforts to work with property owners on developing more quality residential space on the square.
"If you can get a quality renter or a quality loft owner in the downtown area, they're going to pretty much stay in the downtown area. There's a lot down here for them," Dorsett said.
Part 2 - The New Kid in Town
Jason Miller is owner and executive chef of Shiloh's Bar and Bistro on the west side of the square.
Miller owned a restaurant in Katy, TX, but he sold it as he looked for someplace with more of a family atmosphere. He found it in Macomb.
"It's a gorgeous courthouse and that was the first lure to it. We can have a business that looks out on something like this," Miller said.
He was also drawn by the special events - such as Dickens on the Square - and the care shown by many property and business owners.
Miller thinks the square can become a destination.
"You've got a history there," Miller said. He points out Abraham Lincoln visited the square and spoke there.
"I can see people traveling to see that story and learn more about that story. I can see a re-enactment."
Miller feels the square has charm and potential. He said the opportunity to open a business on the square almost seemed too good to be true. But he also recognizes times are tough right now, which creates a challenge for those trying to bring new businesses to the square.
Part 3 - Survey Says...
Four graduate students at Western Illinois University conducted a survey of fellow students and university employees this fall to find out what they think about the square. More than 1,500 people responded. That's more than the number of people who voted in the last two city elections - combined.
Jennifer Chancay, who is one of the researchers, acknowledges there was an incentive for people to respond: a $100 gift certificate from the Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce & Downtown Development Corporation. But she believes the high response rate can be attributed to more than that.
"People are also interested in getting more good businesses and restaurants here in Macomb," Chancay said.
The survey asked people what type of restaurant they would like to bring to the square. They were also asked what type of business in general they would like to see. In both cases, the number one response was the same: bakery.
68% of the people who responded enjoy the look and feel of the square. Chancay said that statistic stood out.
"People like the square. They want to come down here and they want to have a reason to come down here," Chancay said.
The study is not gathering dust. The report is already being put to use by the Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce & Downtown Development Corporation. Fifth Ward Alderman Dave Dorsett said the city has plenty of other reports gathering dust and suggests it might be time to give them a look too.
"I've got probably four, five, maybe six different downtown treatments on a shelf in my office," Dorsett said. "They've been done at different points in time by different engineers with different visions. We don't need that again."
He said downtown merchants, the Chamber, and the city should go through the plans and pull the best ideas from each of them.
Part 4 - Mayoral Candidates & The Square
The next mayor will be responsible for helping create a vision for the square. Three people are running for the job: Fourth Ward Alderman Mike Inman, Second Ward Alderman Ed Lavin, and WIU student D'Angelo Taylor.
Each of them would like to see a building fill the hole created on the square by the March 3 fire. Each one said creation of a downtown historic district was a good idea. Inman and Lavin support the proposed facade improvement program. Taylor said he is not familiar with the program.
Lavin said the facade program could encourage investment in the downtown.
"I think this forgivable loan is a great idea for the city to get involved and use some of the TIF money. If we can get the outside of these buildings to look nice, we may be able to bring in some businesses," said Lavin.
Inman said the city should play a role in helping fill empty storefronts, and added the city should also make sure it supports existing businesses.
Inman said the Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce & Downtown Development Corporation and the Macomb Area Convention & Visitors Bureau have been charged with coming up with new ideas and new events for the square. He cited Dickens on the Square as an example of a successful event.
"I don't know how you could have gone downtown during Dickens on the Square both Friday night and Saturday and not have been, in some cases, almost overwhelmed at the choices that were presented," Inman said.
Taylor believes the square can be promoted through a stronger partnership with the university.
"We do father's weekend, mother's weekend, family weekend. All those things should be not just held at the university but held somewhere in the community and what better place to have it than in the square," Taylor said.
The square's streets and sidewalks need some work, but Inman and Lavin both said the subsurface infrastructure, such as the drainage system, also requires repairs. That will cost quite a bit of money, which both feel can come from the TIF District Fund and grants.
Inman and Lavin both support the half-cent sales tax hike referendum. They said money from the sales tax increase could also help pay for repairs.
Taylor has said he does not support the referendum
Part 5 - Moving Ahead by Looking Back
There are several historical markers on the square, and during the summer the Western Illinois Museum organized walking tours to show off the square's history.
The square was designated a state historic district in 2009 and the city is now in the process of applying for national historic designation.
Penny Lawyer, President of the Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce & Downtown Development Corporation, said the square needs to be promoted as a historic and unique place to visit.
"Anyone can travel to a metropolitan area and can see new construction. They can see malls. But how many opportunities do you have to walk into a downtown and walk into an independently owned, unique shop that you don't find anywhere else? I think that's the opportunity and that's how we market it," Lawyer said.
Lawyer said a big challenge on the square is created by absentee landlords who don't maintain the old buildings as well as they should. Bruce Brown, who formerly owned a restaurant and tavern just off the square, echoed that sentiment.
Brown said the community needs to rally around the downtown because there is no money available from the state to make repairs. He said Macomb has "a neat downtown."
Community Development Coordinator Ed Basch said he was impressed with the square's variety of stores - and the courthouse itself - when he moved to Macomb in 2007. He said the square is not a perfect place today but it nonetheless remains a bright spot in the community.
"There is always room for improvement. But compared to many downtowns in communities of this size and in rural settings, we are still far ahead," Basch said.
Macomb's Courthouse Square has gone through ups and downs over the years. It's clear there is work to be done today, given the number of empty storefronts.
But the square is far from being in critical condition. The Heart of the Community is still beating strong, though the next few years could be crucial to determining its long-term prognosis.