Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Downtown Elgin - Something to Brag About

Cities are big on bragging rights.

They post their accomplishments on signs throughout the city. They write their achievements on the water tower. Like the one in Hebron painted to look like a basketball boasting their 1952 state champs. Or the plaque in Woodstock’s Town Square that proclaims “Ned’s Corner: Groundhog Day Movie – 1992.”

When it comes to bragging rights, Elgin’s got ‘em. Though we don’t often use ‘em. Perhaps we’re modest. Perhaps we’re just too busy to put up signs and paint water towers.

But there is one small brown sign on the corner of Kimball Street and Dundee Avenue whose four little words speak volumes about our city’s rich past, exciting present and bright future. And those words are … drumroll, please . . . Illinois Main Street Community.

Okay, they don’t sound very exciting, but they are. I have to admit those words meant nothing to me for the past seven years that I drove past them. In any case, over the past few months I’ve learned that those words play a major roll in the revitalization of our downtown, as well as 1,200 other historic downtowns across the country.

The Main Street Program is a comprehensive community revitalization program that promotes historic preservation and economic development to restore prosperity and vitality to downtowns and neighborhood business districts.

Though there is no “Main Street” in Elgin, the City was designated as an Illinois Main Street community in 2002. The Downtown Neighborhood Association utilizes the Main Street model to manage its operations and revitalization efforts.

What happened to downtown Elgin in the 1980s and 1990s happened to many downtowns across the country. Where once all roads led to downtown, the development and expansion of roads brought opportunities for new retail, restaurants and residential. Just picture Randall Road, and you get the idea.

Though this greatly expanded the city’s tax base, it also created some very tough competition for the independent businesses of the traditional business district. Many of them couldn’t compete, and they left, leaving vacant storefronts and no one to care for them. Our downtowns became ghost towns. And some of them got pretty scary.

But with their city’s support and the help of the Main Street program, downtowns nationwide are going through a renaissance. They are being appreciated for their historical fabric and their unique potential for retail, restaurants and residential. People are realizing that the downtown is the heart of their community, and that heartbeat is getting stronger by the day.

Downtown Elgin is no exception. With the city’s streetscape project, events in Festival Park, riverfront living, unique shops, distinctive restaurants, the Hemmens, the Library, the Centre, the Grand Vic… Downtown Elgin has some big time bragging rights. So, let’s use them.

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