One Step At A Time

On May 18th, I posted about myMAINSTREET, a concept in which I drew inspiration from The Better Block Project out of Dallas. This was to be a working collaboration between the Pekin Main Street and Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce (two organizations of which I belong). The purpose is to revitalize certain blocks of our downtown.

A developer in town had contacted me saying that he was looking to have his buildings, which are located on what is known as the 200 Block, “staged” for an open-house like event that was going to be held during the Chamber’s monthly Business After Hours – a networking gathering of local business folk usually set in a Pekin-area business.

Before Renovation Pictures

First, let me preface the recap of the event by saying this is not a new idea, not all my idea, nor is this a complete version of what other complete/open streets concept projects are. Rather, this was a small seed planted in a city that is unfamiliar with such ideas.

Since moving from Dallas 15 months ago, I have been trying to spread the word about doing a Better Block-esque project and eagerly waiting for a chance to implement it here in town. So I jumped at the opportunity. I had three weeks to make a two-hour impression that would hopefully linger in the subconscious of those who witnessed it for months to come.

The Mission

To show the community of Pekin, Illinois that with vision, creativity, and energy it can reclaim what has been a lost block both socially and economically for the past few decades.

The Goal

Using preservation as a basis to stabilize historical buildings and a downtown block, ultimately leading to a more innovative, sustainable, vibrant, and economically viable city block.

History of the Block

The buildings of the 200 block date back to the 1820’s and have gone through the evolution that buildings typically go through when they serve their cities for such a long period of time. However, the 200 block of Court Street has been on an island of its own for several decades. A bridge that was built in 1974 and the need to improve flow of truck traffic in the downtown unintentionally cut the block off from future growth. The block is highlighted in yellow and the red arrows represent several 3-lane, one-way traffic roads.

Traffic coming off the bridge from the West has no option but to speed past the block. The only way to access this 200 block from the bridge is to turn right and cross three lanes of traffic to turn left into the block. From the East, you can circle the block following the one-way roads or directly from Court Street. From the South you have a good view of the block but can get caught in the rip tide of traffic as well. A vacuum is created by the flow current traffic design.

The Event

The event itself was born from having a property owner that was looking to display his buildings he had been rehabbing over the past year. By utilizing the Chamber of Commerce’s Business After Hours as a means to do so was a unique opportunity for me to embrace. In order to help promote the event and sell the idea to possible volunteers and pop-up shop owners, I created the theme of “History In The Making” and a flyer to distribute.

The Preparation

The three weeks leading up to the event was a time for me to put my mind, muscle, and money where my mouth was. People had read and heard about what I was trying to do, but there was still a disconnect with what they were imagining it to be. I had set expectations high and was hustling to make sure they would be met. Below are some highlights of what I was looking to accomplish and messages I was trying to send.

  • Attract small business owners or individuals that might be looking to open their own store to fill in the vacancies on the block. Create pop-up shops not only to show what could be there and do the economic development work to tie the block together as opposed to letting it become a “whatever we can get block.”
  • Display the storefronts as clean and welcoming.
  • Highlight behind the building parking as a viable storage for vehicles.
  • Highlight the use of alternate transportation into the block by bringing in a bike rack and demonstrating a pedestrian friendly sidewalk environment.
  • Create a true mixture of building uses from residential, office, service, restaurant, and retail.
  • Improve the streetscape by bringing in softening elements such as potted plants, hanging baskets, and flowers which had previously been absent.

With flyer in hand, I targeted a handful of businesses that I felt would be good to try to relocate for this demonstration. Using Craiglist as a good way to reach out to the local artist community, I was hoping to find some musicians for the event. With a subtle message that I was trying to convey regarding supporting small businesses, I created a sign to be displayed in each storefront window.

I have to say that the results were very satisfying. With each day that went by, it seemed that another business or individual was interested in helping out in one way or another. With a couple of days of preparation left, everything was starting to fall into place. I spent a good three days preparing the empty lots behind the block to show as a possible parking solution to this city’s perceived parking issues. The day of, I spent time cleaning the buildings and setting up for the event itself. It was one of the busiest and craziest days I have endured in a long while.

At 4:00 P.M. people started to notice what was going on and interest was piqued. When 4:30 came around, people came in to tour the buildings and see what had been missing on the block for years. There were smiles and a youthful sense of curiosity which was a breath of fresh air. The evening ended in a flash. Come 6:30, everyone had departed and the event concluded.

Renovation Progress and Event Pictures

  

 

  

 

  

 

094  093

106  099

 113

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The next day I was eager to see the write-up in the local newspaper. It seemed to make a pretty solid impact on those who witnessed and attended. Except for me telling you this here, it was not mentioned in the article that I had a hand in putting this event together. To me that’s fine. In all of this I’m not looking for headlines or a thank you. What I am looking for is other individuals that have vision, some creativity, and the energy to willingly step up and move their community forward. I am very opportunistic, but I am also very realistic. If what was displayed for those two hours is not taken to heart and made permanent, this area will go back to the way it has been for years.

I would like to take the time to thank everyone else who played a part in making this event a success:

The Vinyl Art Studio – great vinyl lettering for the storefronts!

Jake’s Place – mock barbershop and barber to yours truly.

Phat Jax – for our motorcycle shop.

Relics – helping outfit our boutique.

Kountry Nook- adding to the boutique.

CJ’s Cafe – providing the food and beverage for the evening.

The Nathan See Quartet – adding some much-needed soothing sounds.

Little Ade’s – for letting me steal a bike rack for a few hours.

Heights Flowers – added the color and beauty the block has been missing.

…and of course thanks to everyone that could make it, hopefully there will be more block changing events to come!

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2 thoughts on “One Step At A Time

  1. Sounds like someone really stood back, evaluated, and put a lot of elbow and noodle grease into this presentation. Like a realtor staging an individual property, but a whole section. Good concept. Still, the issues of parking, and access/usability of the upper floors, and competition from cheaper open properties in more retail-intensive areas (malls and such east of town) are dis-incentives for the proposed revitalization. Always have been.

    The great thing that this person included, which has been missing in most proposals for the area, is the concept of including the street and sidewalk along with the storefront. The benefit of traffic being diverted away from this block, is also the cause of it’s decline. The one-way streets also limit exposure, as stated, and put a damper on marketing it as retail exposed property.

    The mock-shops, and trying to complement the existing businesses by inclusion is very clever.

    Overall, a better effort than typical – I think this model is something they could incorporate block by block, if they would just stop the decay and demo leaving gaps. For a good place to see revitalization, downtown Edwardsville is teaming with with activity this past weekend, and also is typically a busy governmental center. Some sections of shops were not open on Saturday morning, but those that were included coffeeshops, restaurants, and service shops. The lack of some retail storefront activity was more than made up for with the farmer’s market/craft activity in a temporarily closed street. This closure works because it’s a short strip with parking nearby that isn’t occupied on the weekend, and because the adjoining streets are two-way and make it easy to get thru the area despite the closure.

    When I was visiting Indy, and Zionville, I noticed that the weekend business was taken out of the shops and into the front sidewalk and streets – same businesses as have storefronts or operations elsewhere, but a great showcase of what is available in the area. That included not just bric-a-brak, and jewelry, but useful items like a really good garage sale with excellent food vendors with some sitting/relaxing areas interspersed. Like a traveling carnival, this only happens on selected weekends, but it revitalizes an area which would normally be dormant on the weekend, and brings in potential customers for the rest of the week to the permanent shops.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I appreciate you taking the time to read. There are certainly some real tough issues that are facing this block as well as the entire downtown. It goes far beyond just local policies as the roads that sweep past the block are state roadways.

      The building stock in downtown Pekin is limited in that it does not provide a lot of upper-story or easy restaurant in-fill possibilities. My one day dream of having complementing businesses might be just that. Unless a dedicated effort to attract specific businesses there takes place it will be the status quo of taking what we can get.

      Trends in retail are pointing back to doing business as back in the “old days.” If small businesses want to compete with larger competition they will really need to fight for it. This also provides a great opportunity for “Main Streets” across America. I like the idea of a traveling market. It is an opportunity for young businesses or those that don’t really need a store front yet to still conduct business.

      Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment!

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