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Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019 12:07 am

State of the street

Is MacArthur Boulevard facing a death spiral? Or a new frontier?

Gutter dangles from a vacant and abandoned gas station.
Photo by Joe Copley.
Last week brought word that the owners of Springfield’s Town & Country Shopping Center are facing bank foreclosure. Business failure is never good news, and this one marks the latest contribution to the ongoing quiet crisis of MacArthur Boulevard.

And yet, according to John Eck and others with the MacArthur Boulevard Association, there is room for hope. The Town & Country default may have a silver lining. Eck, whose day job is with the Springfield accounting firm Eck, Schafer and Punke, had conducted his own informal sidewalk survey of MacArthur, from South Grand to Wabash, making notes and taking photos of weeds, gravel on sidewalks, dangling gutters and neglected signs.

At a recent meeting of the MBA, which represents both residents and businesses, Eck made a state-of-the street presentation of his findings, while emphasizing potential positive developments, including opportunities presented by the foreclosure, a range of small, immediate, tangible improvements that can be made, and finally, the possibility MacArthur could receive $35 million from the state’s $45 billion capital improvements program.

But Eck also included an alarming statistic. In 2015 there were 16 vacant properties along the MacArthur corridor. Today 35 stand empty.

For decades MacArthur Boulevard has been a gateway to the city, and remains a route of transition from the developments to the west and the rural area beyond to the traditional heart of town. When Town & Country opened in 1961, MacArthur was the new frontier. But the decades that brought changing trends in retail have not been kind to the street once known as West Grand Avenue.

Driving along MacArthur today, it’s easy to identify the challenges. Empty stores, visual clutter, distracting signage and crumbling infrastructure, including deteriorated roadway and curbing. The contrast between the significant number of well-maintained properties on the Boulevard and the many others in various stages of disrepair is stark.

Is MacArthur in a death spiral? According to Eck and the MBA, perhaps not.

If the bank can find a purchaser with pockets deep enough to match a broader vision, the revitalization of Town & Country could build on the success of the Hy-Vee development. This would create a larger healthy stretch of MacArthur and spur further improvements by attracting both businesses and customers. MBA hopes to influence future development of the shopping center by encouraging mixed use, including retail, institutional, office, and even residential use of the site.

Second, there remain a series of healthy, attractive anchors from South Grand to Stanford, and there are low-cost steps that can be taken to improve conditions on the vacant and substandard parcels.

Here, Eck’s presentation focused on encouraging property owners to make repairs and improvements to their holdings and at least bring them up to code. The MBA seems willing to mobilize on this front, cataloguing problem areas and reaching out to individual owners and working with the city to enforce the codes. If the average level of the Boulevard’s properties – including the vacant ones – were improved, the thinking goes, it would make the entire stretch more attractive to potential businesses and customers.

MacArthur Boulevard presents many challenges. Yet with the change of hands for the largest commercial parcel on the street, dedicated community activism and a timely influx of state cash, the time may have come for a turnaround.  

Dennis Thread is a recently returned Springfield native who grew up on State Street, knew MacArthur Boulevard in its heyday, and recalls the opening of Town & Country Shopping Center.

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