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Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005 12:21 pm

Heebie-jeebies

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Marilyn Kushak, chairwoman of the presidential museum readiness committee, which plans to hand out brooms to business owners as a not-so-subtle reminder to clean up
PHOTO BY TERRY FARMER

Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin is feeling anxious.

Two months remain before the dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, an event expected to draw national media attention, tens of thousands of visitors, foreign dignitaries, and, perhaps, even the president.

“I’m nervous,” Davlin says. “You know, we’re all nervous because we have a lot of work to do in the next seven weeks.”

Last-minute preparations include arranging for shuttle buses to haul visitors, erecting new wayfinding signs throughout downtown, and, perhaps most important, finalizing a detailed security plan if President George W. Bush shows up.

These logistical issues are being tackled by a variety of engineers, planners, and volunteers.

The mayor, meanwhile, has spent much of the last year focusing on the decorative details. Dolling up the capital city has become a top priority for Davlin, who made beautification efforts the core of his “State of the Downtown” speech last month.

Of course, for some local dreamers, a beautiful Springfield would involve razing the Soviet-style Stratton building or the smoke-belching City Water, Light, and Power plant, removing a few billboards, or even solving the long-standing problem of illegal dumping.

Under the previous administration, beautification efforts included a major revision of zoning laws that addressed landscaping and signage problems (see sidebar).

But Davlin’s emphasis has been more superficial — from painting traffic lights to removing parking meters to mass flower plantings and tulip-bulb giveaways.

“I don’t care how hokey it sounds,” Davlin says, “but anything you do to green up this city is going to make it look good.”

The mayor says he is stressing uniformity downtown and hopes to install new flower planters modeled after the pale Egyptian limestone of the new presidential complex.

Tidying up downtown has become an obsession for local planners, according to Marilyn Kushak, chairwoman of the presidential museum readiness committee.

Kushak says that a new logo, “Company’s coming,” will soon appear on downtown storefronts, and souvenir brooms will be donated to business owners to encourage cleanliness.

Later this month, Downtown Springfield Inc. will finish compiling its annual inventory of infrastructure problems downtown, from broken curbs and sidewalks to chipped paint and sagging gutters.

Some of these repairs will be included as part of the finishing touches leading to the museum dedication.

Davlin says he is hopeful that the city’s emphasis on aesthetics will boost civic pride. He points to similar progress made in Chicago.

“You don’t even see cigarette butts in downtown Chicago; people don’t flick ’em there,” Davlin says. “That’s a mentality that has to change for Springfield.”

Davlin appears ready to tackle the cigarette-butt issue; the city’s chronic trash problem is more daunting, he says.

Throughout his nearly two-year tenure, Davlin has pledged to alter the city’s privatized system for garbage collection, which some critics blame for the fly-dumping that is a blight and public-health hazard in many parts of the city.

Davlin has pledged to crack down on households that are not contracted for waste removal, which account for 3 to 15 percent of the population, according to different studies.

But, Davlin says, all the brainstorming has led nowhere. “We’re never going to alleviate the problem,” he says. “There’s a law in the book, but it’s practically impossible to enforce.”

Returning to his beautification initiatives, Davlin acknowledges that Springfield is larger than highway entrances and the historic downtown center. But, he says, “you have to start somewhere,” and he vows to expand his Springfield Green initiatives after the museum opens.

For instance, Davlin says, he plans to add tree planters to several median strips throughout the city, from intersections on Dirksen Parkway to the corner of South Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard.

He is also hopeful that the state will soon announce funding to jump-start the $10 million-plus project to create a tree-lined boulevard along Capitol Avenue, extending from Second Street to 19th Street.

“Let’s get April 19 over with,” says Davlin, “and then let’s go on.”

Museum director Richard Norton Smith, meanwhile, agrees that much work remains to be done before the museum dedication. But as the big day approaches, he says, improvisation becomes key.

“It’s a conceit to call it planning; it’s reacting,” Smith says. “People who say they’re planning make the mistake to think that they’re in control.”

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