Yesterday I attended an Illinois Main Street training session on “Trends in Downtown Revitalization.” Although the session itself was fairly brief, its impact and impression made on me were anything but. As an always eager and involved board member of Pekin Main Street, the opportunity to tag along to Pontiac, Illinois with our Executive Director was a great chance for learning and observing.
Pontiac is a small town of 11,931, but as I am about to inform you, large on charm. It is mostly known for being situated along the historic Route 66. For young people like myself, I only know of Route 66 from its folklore. I’ve seen the roadside signs but nowadays the Chicago to St. Louis route is via Interstate 55. This means no more stopping in small, charming towns. A quick trip to our destinations with merely a pit stop along the Interstate drive-thru circuit is more common.
I will admit right here and right now that I’d never been to Pontiac. I’d never had any reason to stop there. If fact, I never even gave it a thought. I have seen the exit signs for the town hundreds of times but kept the pedal down and continued to drive right past it each and every time. So what I’m about to do is give the town a lot of well-deserved free advertising and publicity. Pontiac blew me away with what has always been hiding off the beaten highway.
PowerPoint presentations aside, the most learning from this session came from seeing it in action. One of the trends of downtowns is that Main Street is “hot.” Not temperature wise – but cool and trendy. To take it to the next level of how I see it -downtowns are only becoming buzz-worthy when they are progressing in the right direction. Pontiac hasn’t rested on the fact that it is an old Route 66 stop but has been able to capitalize on it.
Pontiac (named after the Indian Chief) is better known for its Michigan namesake – home to the automaker of the same name. The Illinois version was able to tie that in with the help of some generous donations and specific interest in building the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum. I usually complain about the car-centric ways of Americans, but I can still appreciate the beauty of a classic car. The cars in the museum didn’t get my heart all-a-flutter as much as the building they are housed in – it is from 1900 and was renovated into this gorgeous museum. I think of it as a gorgeous building first – one that happens to house beautiful cars in it second. Weird, I know.
Really cool! But the other catalyst of Pontiac’s recent success has been its murals around town. Dubbed the “Murals on Main Street,” there are over 20 murals around town which tie in the town’s local history. Not only do they give people a reason to look around downtown, but they also add a beautifying element to some otherwise empty cold walls. The arts have been a huge attraction in the area with a famous Chinese artist, Tang Dongbai setting up shop there. Additionally, there is a “Wall Dog” mural museum, which chronicles the history and continuing artwork of individuals who paint on the sides of buildings.
I don’t know if any of this and many other developments could have been made possible if not for the work of Pontiac’s Main Street organization and having a city council with a mayor who now fully understands how to grow and cultivate their niche. Local governments often shoot down “little” ideas like these or seem to make them more difficult. Having a chance to be led around town by Mayor Bob Russell, we got to see firsthand how unique partnerships and understanding have gotten this town a lot further than others.
The Mayor greeted everyone that he came across downtown. The first question he asked was, “Where are you from?” The replies varied – England, Australia, and Detroit – to name just a few. He often made note that if it weren’t for the uniqueness of Pontiac’s downtown and the new vision of creativity, these visitors would not exist. Sure, you expect mayors to be shaking hands and kissing babies. But Mayor Russell seemed to possess the innate quality of being able to understand how the pieces of the puzzle work together. As a result, he is the ambassador of the product that any town could hope for.
The afternoon wasn’t enough to quench my curiosity for this small town so I’ll be returning soon. If I’ve learned anything over the past year of being involved with the Main Street initiative, it’s to never underestimate or take for granted what the smaller towns have to offer.