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Wednesday, March 5, 2008 06:52 am

Turning things around

Despite a long hard winter, optimism blooms along MacArthur Boulevard

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Untitled Document In the 1980s, when she served as this paper’s general manager and ad director, Sharon Whalen and her family lived on Dial Court, just west of MacArthur Boulevard. She could walk to the Esquire Theater and see a first-run film, eat at Lichee Garden, and buy groceries at the nearby National Foods. The newspaper’s offices were on Seventh Street, not far from the Lincoln Home and downtown, but Whalen says the MacArthur corridor area felt like “the heart of the city, where things happened.”
In the early 1990s Whalen left the paper and Illinois to work for several other newspapers. She was living in sunny Scottsdale, Ariz., when she decided to take advantage of an opportunity that few people in this profession of tumbleweeds ever get: an invitation to come back. In 2002, Fletcher Farrar reacquired Illinois Times and asked Whalen to manage the newspaper’s operations. One of her first decisions was to move the paper’s offices to State Street, near the intersection of MacArthur and South Grand Avenue. Our building faces the now-vacant Esquire Theatre property. On her return, Whalen says, she gravitated back to the businesses she had patronized in the past and back as well to familiar neighborhoods, parks, schools, and churches. She bought a charming little house on Whittier and got busy renovating and landscaping. Because she’d been gone for about a dozen years, Whalen has a unique perspective that most of us — longtime residents and newcomers like me — can’t have. You know what I mean: When you’re watching, changes have a way of unfolding gradually, almost imperceptibly. If you’ve stopped paying attention and then all of sudden take notice, change can seem dramatic, even shocking.
Whalen discovered that little ol’ Springfield hadn’t been spared the consequences of urban sprawl, and developers had tugged hard at the commercial heart of the city. “It seemed that all the developers’ eyes had been focused on eating up farmland on the west and south,” she recalls. With these problems and a handful of “bad breaks” — the Venture/Kmart store closed, the theater shuttered, the grocery gone — it seemed that “MacArthur Boulevard was on the endangered list,” she says. Nobody was ringing any alarm bells. The excitement of new big-box stores out west left MacArthur to stagnate and decay. But things started to change in 2006. That year, more than 60 people showed up at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored meeting at Charlie Robbins’ real-estate office to talk about MacArthur-related issues. The goal of the meeting, as Whalen recalls it, was to start making “some good things happen for the existing business district” before the completion of the Interstate 72 exchange. (Whalen was one of the early enthusiastic volunteers, and she’s been active with the MacArthur Boulevard Business Association ever since.) Business owners and neighbors along MacArthur already had a pretty good handle on the challenges they were facing. Empty buildings, where hundreds of people once transacted business, are a pretty good sign that things are amiss, but we’ll let Whalen list some of the problems: “Absentee landlords sitting on crumbling properties and city lots that don’t easily conform to the needs of big-city developers. Sidewalks and other aspects of the infrastructure are a mess.”
If the remaining businesses and interested neighbors could band together, perhaps they could build alliances to reverse the deterioration. Plenty of stalwarts remain: The Baskin-Robbins at Laurel is always busy. Luers Family Shoes and Wild Birds Unlimited are solid commercial enterprises. Town and Country Bank is an important anchor. There are dozens more. Most of the business members of the organization live nearby, so their interest isn’t necessarily focused just on turning a buck; they want to also want to keep the neighborhood popular and property values high. So they’re throwing themselves into events like art fairs, block parties, and beautification projects to build solidarity while consulting with developers, urban planners, and city officials to create a development plan and get government to provide the tools and incentives to encourage new investment in this vital part of Springfield. Everybody, of course, is not on the same page. As this week’s cover story makes clear, there are still many disagreements about the best course for turning MacArthur’s fortunes around. The city may be looking at a taxing district; some businesses may not embrace additional costs that could make them less competitive. The business association supported a variance that will encourage the Mobil station to invest in a major upgrade; some nearby residents are still angry that beer will be sold at that location. The challenges are many. Whalen is optimistic but not Pollyannaish: “The problems in this area of town didn’t develop overnight — nor will the solutions. But momentum is on our side.” 

Contact Roland Klose at editor@illinoistimes.com
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