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Wednesday, May 31, 2006 02:19 pm

Downtown Springfield

The heart of the city

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Abraham Lincoln Presidental Library
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP
Springfield was born downtown, before there was a downtown, at the corner of Jefferson and Klein, where the first “permanent” structure was built. With the infusion of visitors taking in the new Abraham Presidential Library and Museum, the heart of the city is pumping with new vigor. Just ask Victoria Clemons, executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc., an organization dedicated to making downtown Springfield an ideal place in which to shop, work, visit, invest, and live.
“Starting in 2005, between 17 and 20 new businesses, some replacing existing enterprises, have opened downtown. Infill construction, erecting new structures in empty lots, is a sure sign of revitalization.” An example: the new primary health care building on Ninth Street across from the Lincoln Home. Many yardsticks are used to mark and measure a downtown — historical haven, center of commerce, or hub of government, to name a few. Perhaps the simplest way to define Springfield’s downtown is this: It’s the heart of the capital city. “We don’t have specific borders,” Clemons says. “Springfield Clinic’s expansion is considered a downtown project. Some people take it as far as South Grand. The streetscaping and plans for the new medical district are tying into downtown.”
Like a magnificent magnet, the presidential museum has drawn visitors like gangbusters. Just 21 months after the museum’s opening, the millionth visitor passed through the gate of the facility, a record pace for any presidential museum. And in 2006, Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau recorded nearly 2.4 million visits to the capital city’s tourism sites. “What’s significant about last year is that folks from all over the city started seeing downtown as the true destination from which to hold an event,” Clemons says, “Route 66 and the Cruise for Charity are held here, to name a few. “We also had record number of inquiries from people wanting to open a business. We have a running inventory of space available.” Much of the storefront space is necessarily boutique and office space. “Any large retailer would have to go with infill construction, say, at Fifth at Jefferson. Businesses, which complement rather than compete with existing ones are sought. We are concentrating on services development to serve the growing residential populace, and I know a great new shoe shop is coming.”
In increasing numbers, local merchants are seeing the appeal of a downtown location, and DSI has enjoyed a dramatic increase in membership. Visible downtown improvements are helping that growth spurt along, Clemons says. Heavily involved in the city’s Readiness Committee, DSI was one of several groups that joined forces in advance of the presidential library and museum’s opening. The partnership will be around for years to come as its members work toward the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Anticipating the visitors Springfield will play host to, the Readiness Committee has paid particular attention to downtown revitalization and beautification, and, Clemons says, “it made a big difference.”
Grants from the city helped pay for facelifts of several downtown buildings. This type of work is coordinated with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency; anyone who buys or leases a renovated property agrees to maintain that special “downtown look.” Beautification of the downtown and the main byways into the city was just one piece of the puzzle faced by the Readiness Committee, which had to develop strategies for a multitude of tasks and issues. They succeeded, as demonstrated by the resounding success of the presidential museum from day one. Along with the library, the positive momentum created by the Readiness Committee’s teamwork is a lasting legacy. Your next trip to downtown Springfield is likely to bring you face to face with a strong sense of community pride accompanied by a down-home, hospitable feel. “It’s a happy town,” says Clemons of the city’s friendly spirit. “Every day you’ll see people helping each other.”
Helping the downtown community continues to be the driving force behind DSI as it rides the wave of success. Working through 10 councils, most of which meet monthly, DSI focuses on every aspect that could boost downtown’s success — from image and design to membership and community relations. In addition, as one of 58 Illinois “Main Street Communities” (a program sanctioned by the office of Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn), DSI works to fulfill guidelines set by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The guidelines are related to design, economic development, organization, and promotion. New kids on the block will become part of a strong downtown presence. Already Springfield’s downtown boasts more than 200 businesses, offering everything a shopper or diner could desire. From a bookstore carrying rare collector’s editions to an Italian-food mart that’s been in the same family for a century, downtown Springfield seeks to satisfy every taste in gifts, clothing, furniture, artwork, jewelry, and, of course, food. Nearly all of the 45 restaurants in downtown Springfield are one of a kind. “Most are mom-and-pop places, with very eclectic offerings,” says Clemons. “They all bring their own personalities to their businesses.”
In addition to tackling unique projects such as the presidential-museum opening, DSI sponsors six annual events designed to broaden exposure to downtown retail businesses and restaurants. A self-guided architectural walking tour, held on the first Wednesday of the month, May-October, is popular, as is the “Blues & BBQ” event, which attracted 5,000 last year.
Special events aside, the everyday bustle of downtown Springfield will likely keep blossoming. “In five years, the city will be different,” says Clemons, who predicts continued growth and renovation in the downtown area. You may, for example, find an antique district. On a grander scale, a full-fledged medical district is in the works. You will most certainly find more singles and couples calling the downtown area home. In fact, residential development is the next big step for downtown Springfield. “We want to bring residents in and bring services like small grocery stores and dry cleaners in simultaneously to support those living here,” says Clemons. The downtown area already has a handful of good-size residential apartment complexes, and now DSI is seeing an increase in upper-level development. “We have added rooms,” she says. “There are two or three new residential opportunities on the 300 block of Adams. At First at Washington, Bruce Ferry is developing four apartments.” She predicts that as time draws near to the expiration of TIF District financial aid in 2016, the influence of interest in new development will increase.
Clemons expects the new dwellings to appeal to young professionals looking for convenience and that “loft feel,” characterized by exposed beams, brick, and ductwork. It would appear that the pendulum is swinging back toward downtown. Clemons views it as a balancing out of the urban sprawl seen in the 1970s and ’80s.
“It’s coming back in,” she says. “People are looking for a sense of tradition and a hometown feel.”
For Clemons, the growing enthusiasm for downtown is more than welcome. After all, as she says, “If the hub of your city isn’t strong, your city isn’t strong.”

— Celeste Huttes, with additional reporting by Job Conger
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