What does the city of Galesburg hope to learn from a study being done by Massie Massie and Associates of Springfield?

What does the city of Galesburg hope to learn from a study being done by Massie Massie and Associates of Springfield? Why is downtown revitalization important when city officials say Galesburg’s central business district is the envy of many cities with empty downtowns lined with boarded-up storefronts?

The background information provided in a council letter dated Nov. 5, said, “The strategic planning process would analyze a variety of areas, including preservation of downtown buildings, redevelopment of vacant sites with new uses, transportation and physical improvements needed in the area.”

The study schedule calls for a five-month effort that will include the thoughts of local residents. The proposal made by MMA calls for the involvement “of downtown property owners, business people, residents and the general public, as well as city officials and staff. . . .”

A steering group will meet with local organizations, outside interests and the media to promote the strategic plan as a long-term effort. A number of public informational meetings are planned as the process moves forward.

When the study is completed, MMA will provide a strategic plan that includes:
“Large-Scale, rendered exhibit(s) of Master Plan of Downtown,” and an illustrated booklet with text describing the planning effort and results.

Although City Manager Dane Bragg said there have been successes downtown, property values have eroded since the mid-’70s. As a result, many property owners are unable to increase rents, thus making it difficult to do regular building maintenance or make improvements.

“So, it kind of slowly deteriorates,” Bragg said. “You have to find a way to reverse that process and that’s true everywhere.”

Shopping malls
Enclosed shopping malls led to the decay of many downtowns. Although downtown Galesburg lost most of its major national retailers when Sandburg Mall opened in the mid-’70s, the implementation of a Special Service Area tax by downtown merchants helped stave off the total exodus many cities experienced. Now, new enclosed shopping malls are on the wane, with just one built in the U.S. in 2006. Outdoor lifestyle malls, such as The Shoppes at Grand Prairie in Peoria, are in vogue. Most early shopping centers, such as one in suburban Oak Brook, as well as Sheridan Village in Peoria, were the outdoor variety of plazas and fashion malls.

Bragg is both amused and respectful of what mall developers have done.

“Lifestyle centers are built to replicate downtown. I think that’s hilarious,” he said. “To mall developers’ credit, they recognize there’s a preference for that type of ambiance.”

The city manager sees downtown Galesburg’s successes as a base to tap into as shoppers increasingly look for that type of setting, which is largely absent from most cities.

“I think a good thing about downtown Galesburg is we have a good mix of large floor areas and small areas,” Bragg said. “That helps to land that mix of retail you can get downtown.”

While also hoping private developers embark upon projects, such as building more downtown housing along the lines of the lofts on South Seminary Street, Bragg said there are questions that still have to be asked and answered.

“What is the depth of need for residences downtown?” he asked. “We don’t want to say we’re going to (build) 100,000 square feet for downtown residents if there’s only enough depth for 20,000 square feet.”

Community Development Director Roy Parkin said another issued to be addressed in the strategic plan is what goes and what stays.

“We need to look at it from the standpoint of what buildings and developments are worth saving,” Parkin said. “We have to consider what areas do we need to do a redevelopment or a rehabilitation.”

Corridors
Streets leading downtown are crucial so the business district does not become an island that no one reaches.

“And (North) Broad Street is a prime example of how you do it,” Bragg said. “You have a revamped brick street that ties into downtown.”

East Main Street is a corridor with which officials have long wrestled.

“That’s one reason we looked at creating TIF II,” Parkin said. “At that time, every single property was owned by a different person.”

Parkin said developers don’t like to deal with as many as 20 different property owners. The tax increment financing district caused some local developers to buy parcels, putting ownership into fewer hands.

“It worked well,” Parkin said. “We were able to get the hotel (Holiday Inn Express) to come in. What I’m still at a loss on is the area west of the hotel. There’s not much interest there. That’s a concern at this point.”

Officials have worked to entice a sit-down restaurant to locate next to the Holiday Inn Express. Parkin confirmed that Cracker Barrel at one point was on the verge of building there.

Bragg thinks the downtown strategic plan will yield interesting results.

“I think this will be a good process for the community to see what opportunities are possible,” he said. “I’m happy to have the Downtown Council involved. It will be interesting to see the reactions to some of the projects. It gives us a starting point. I think there’s a lot of potential downtown.”

Galesburg was founded as a Utopian community, Bragg said downtown can tie into that vision.

“In a lot of ways, the downtown can be very Utopian,” he said.

Contact John R. Pulliam at jpulliam@register-mail.com.