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Thursday, May 23, 2013 04:33 pm

Decatur changes its image and its attitude

Rooted in history, growing in confidence, downtown leads a community renewal effort


The Avon Theater, sitting on North Water Street has been a Decatur staple for almost 100 years.

Decatur’s historic downtown is launching a new era.

A new look, a hip attitude, fresh paved roads, restored storefronts and a refreshed self-image have made downtown Decatur the place to be any night of the week.

In a town that often has a reputation of crime, poverty and, yes, sometimes the smell, Decatur aims to break down that image and remind itself and central Illinois of its eclectic culture, rich history and lively arts scene. And it looks beautiful doing it.

“Yes, there is sometimes a negative connotation, and this is one more step to reverse or stop that,” said Stephanie Brown, former director of the downtown revitalization project. “By combatting the negativity one area at a time, Decatur is trying to reverse that or at least mitigate that.”

On Merchant Street, a sweet little escape in the heart of downtown, you can stroll down old-fashioned brick sidewalks, wander into an adorable trinket shop like Tournesol or a sophisticated cigar lounge like Goodfella’s, or stop in for a martini at the strikingly modern Katz Night Club. You’ll even find a familiar hometown place, Del’s Popcorn Shop, settled right in the middle of the block.

As you stroll the surrounding areas, the sights and sounds get even more exciting. New additions like Jasmine Thai Restaurant and Sushi Bar and recent food and music hotspots like Paco’s Sol Bistro complement classic establishments like the Lincoln Square Lounge to give Decatur and visitors a wide variety of dining and entertainment options.

“Small win by small win, community renewal is coming to Decatur. Momentum is building,” said Josh Rohrscheib, a downtown Decatur lawyer and advocate. “Young people are engaging and purposefully investing in local businesses and local causes. The downtown renovation brings a new spirit of enthusiasm and optimism about Decatur’s direction.”

With this revitalization, the downtown has definitely not turned its back on its rich and historic heritage. Rather, it is paying homage to it through a new generation of design and the adoption of the phrase “Buy Local. Act Local.” This growing movement has breathed life into the downtown area.

“We have a historic downtown, a lot of the buildings remain, so, we realized that this was our chance to really bring the downtown into the 21st century,” Brown said. “We wanted to pay homage to the past but also move downtown forward. This is a historic throwback to how the street was formed, but it brought a new modern feel to the downtown.”

The historic Carriage House lights up Central Park at night

In 2000, the city set up a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, a rundown or dilapidated area of the town proven to be worthy of redevelopment using funds allocated from current and projected tax revenues. Come 2010, they combined the TIF money with a $1.9 million Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program grant from IDOT and set to work.

After building a sample streetscape on North Water Street, the city gathered downtown residents, business owners and property owners, creating a steering committee that could sit down and render a vision to be taken to the public.

Insight from the public allowed the city to successfully fuse functionality, longevity and modernity with a throwback to Decatur in its heyday. Decatur then embarked on a four-phase, $14 million project that covers the entire downtown area, creating a haven for music, food, art and boutique shopping.

Currently, construction on the third phase, remodeling Decatur’s historic Central Park is underway. Recently, however, construction on the fourth phase was pushed back about a year. The next step is to move the Franklin Street corridor, phase four, into the design and bidding phase this fall/winter and break ground next year.

This entire project has not only improved Decatur’s self-image, reminding it that Decatur hasn’t lost all its glory, but also is showing central Illinois that residents and friends can enjoy what Decatur has to offer.

“I think it’s a great project to showcase what a great downtown we have,” Brown said. “There have always been some great businesses there, and there are new businesses coming in, and this makes it more beautiful and functional. We want to get people on the streets. Get people walking downtown, and it appears to be working.”

Retro streetlights light up the brand new sidewalks on Merchant Street at the heart of downtown.

Margaret Eby is an English major at Millikin University, graduating in May. She is co-founder and arts and entertainment editor for Re:Decatur, an online magazine featuring Decatur. She is also arts editor for The Decaturian, Millikin’s campus newspaper, and newsletter coordinator for Millikin’s Center of Entrepreneurship. Margaret is also a barista at Wilflour Artisan Bakery.

For great breakfast:
Coney McKane’s American Eatery 104 E. Prairie Ave.

For a great steak:
Robbie’s Grille 122 North Merchant St.

For a great cocktail:
Katz Night Club 112 N Merchant St.

For great live music:
Paco’s Sol Bistro 237 N. Main St.

For unique gifts:
Striglos Haines & Essick 150 E. Prairie Ave.

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