CITY BEAT: PRESERVING AND MARKETING OUR HISTORY AND OTHER STOPS ALONG THE WAY
As indicated in the front page story in this week’s print and online editions of the Decatur Tribune, a group called “History of the Heartland” is focusing attention on the old Van Dyke interurban station that is in danger of being another local historic structure to disappear from view.
As someone who has spent most of my life fighting to preserve such structures as the Carnegie Library, the Transfer House, Michl’s Cigar Store and several others, kudos to the Heartland group for their efforts. I’ve found over the years that, despite having a rich history, only a limited number of people have understood the reasons for preserving it and have been willing to work towards such preservation.
Obviously, my efforts through this newspaper, and the efforts of others, did not result in the Carnegie Library being saved and our city lost a valuable treasure in its demolition. Today, the historic library’s site is mostly occupied by a bank parking lot and drive-through teller lanes. Not only was I unsuccessful in my fight to save the library, I was told by a ranking member of the financial institution that bought the property that his firm would never advertise in this newspaper again because I had tried to stop “progress”. He kept his word and the institution’s ads were never again seen in the Trib.
• A MAJOR platform plank when I ran for mayor, and during the years I served as mayor, was my “Treasures of Decatur” project. “Treasures”, which carried a double meaning, meant the buildings and places that have historical significance and marketing the “Treasures” for economic benefit to the city through tourism tax dollars generated.
As I traveled and spoke throughout the community, explaining the “Treasures” project, many people never made the connection that restoration meant a boost to the local economy. There have been some long-term victories in preservation, such as the restoration of the Transfer House during the time I served as mayor and, although I couldn’t stop the demolition of the old Central Park fountain’s central bowl which essentially destroyed the fountain, I was able to raise nearly a quarter-of-a-million dollars and work with the city to build the new fountain, before I was elected mayor.
Other groups have worked hard over the years, and continue to work, at preserving those buildings and places that are part of the foundation blocks of Decatur.
• I AM NOT a supporter of preserving every old building simply because it is old, but there are some structures in our community that not only define where we were but what we are and will be in the future. Progress and preservation are not enemies, but a team that is ever building and marketing what is positive in a community. I think what a lot of people fail to understand is that Decatur has a lot of history that is highly marketable — that can bring people to our community. Considering where Decatur is located, on the plains in Central Illinois, we are blessed to have many direct connections to one of the most famous and marketable people in the world’s history — Abraham Lincoln. His historic footprints are all over our community, especially in our downtown area.
• I CAN LOOK out my office window and see “Lincoln Square” a block away. There are many people who live in Decatur who call the intersection “Main & Main” streets and don’t realize the significance of its name. It is actually one of the most historic places in the nation, when it comes to Abraham Lincoln. Every corner of that square has Lincoln history connected to it, whether it is the northeast corner where he gave his first political speech (there is a statue), the northwest corner where the Lincoln family spent their first night in Macon County, the southwest corner where Lincoln practiced law in a log cabin courthouse or the southeast corner where Lincoln practiced law in the second courthouse built. A block away, in the parking lot of Busey Bank, is where Lincoln was first nominated for President of the United States and the Lincoln connections downtown are everywhere — and highly marketable.
• AS MANY of you remember, until the State of Illinois said “no” to my project of moving the Transfer House back to Lincoln Square, and making it a center with digital information and displays for tourists about our Lincoln history, I had tourist bus tours lined up that would bring people downtown and while enjoying the Lincoln history through walking tours, they could shop at downtown stores and eat at downtown restaurants.
It would be the best kind of revenue for the city because so many people, from around the world, would be visiting Decatur as part of their trip to Springfield, spending many dollars here and then moving on to the next Lincoln sites. A majority of the city council voted to continue to move forward with the project. Main Street was state-owned and maintained back at that time and the reason the state gave me for not allowing everything that I just described to happen was “it’s going to bring too many people into the downtown area!”.
Hello!!!! That was the reason for the preservation/marketing plan! If anyone looked at the design, they would have seen that traffic would flow through very smoothly on the west side of the Transfer House and not be stopped. Still, when I tried to explain to people the benefit to our city, many expressed concern that they wouldn’t be able to drive through downtown as fast as they could at that time. They forgot, or didn’t want to remember, that we were trying to make downtown a “destination”, not a “drive-through”.
• SO, TODAY, I look out my window and see Lincoln Square and the cars streaming through at a fairly fast clip — and Abraham Lincoln continues to make money for other communities — but not Decatur. Over the past several decades we have lost so much of our marketable history to a general insensitivity as to how preservation, progress and productivity can all work together to make Decatur an even more important “destination” — in downtown and other parts of the community. That was, and is, certainly part of my personal vision for our community.
• DECATUR CITY COUNCILMAN Bill Faber’s column (page 7 of this week’s Decatur Tribune) is about public participation at city council meetings — and how more time is needed for those wanting to express their opinions. You might want to check out what Bill wrote and see if you agree or disagree with his views.
• IT WAS great to talk to former Decaturite Fred Straub when he called with a question about his subscription. Fred was a television anchor on WAND-TV about the same time, or shortly thereafter, that I became editor of this newspaper and we struck up a friendship back then and even went boating, along with our wives, on Lake Decatur together. Fred moved on from Decatur years ago and I had not talked to him, probably since the 1970s and it was a treat to catch up on what he and his wife and family have been doing all of these years. Fred lives in a different part of Illinois and I found out that he has been retired for ten years.
Wow! Before I became editor and publisher of this newspaper in 1969, my publishing office was in the Hecht Building (on the third floor) on the northwest corner of North Water and Prairie streets and Fred’s dad was the manager of the building and one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Every time I talk to people I haven’t seen or talked with for a long time, like Fred, a lot of connections and memories are generated and it’s a pleasant trip back.
• THE OFFICIAL beginning of warm weather is finally here in Decatur because the Central Park Fountain has come to life with its waterfalls and sprays and it looks great!!! Believe it or not it has been over 20 years since I started the project to replace what was left of the old fountain with its stagnant water which had become an eyesore. Thanks to the donations of hundreds of residents the new fountain was dedicated 19 years ago. The design of the fountain and construction was all done by local architects, businesses and union labor and there is not another one like it in the world! WAND-TV news uses an overhead shot of the fountain to begin their newscasts each day and countless wedding, reunion and graduation photos have been taken with the fountain in the background.
Needless to point out, everytime I walk through Central Park, or drive by it, I have a real sense of satisfaction of what has happened in Central Park the past 20 years. So much can be done when “politics” takes a back seat and citizens come together to work in building a better community.
I think I’ll get off of my soapbox now but, every once-in-a-while, when I think about all the city has done to improve itself over the decades that I have witnessed, both as a private citizen and a public official, I can’t help but think of some golden opportunities that were lost forever and more than a brief bit of sadness for opportunities lost touches my heart.
• PRAYERS and best wishes to our long-time Sports Editor J. Thomas McNamara who was released from the hospital Tuesday following kidney surgery. Tom has covered local sports for me and the Trib for the past 45 years and this is the first time he has not been able to write his regular column. Things are looking a lot better for him than they did a week ago and I am thankful that he has been released from the hospital and is able to continue his recovery at home. I’m looking forward to a lot more “Irish Stew” on the future sports pages of this newspaper.
• I join Brian Byers every Thursday morning at 7:00 on the City Hall Insider portion of WSOY’s Byers & Co. I always enjoy talking about the events and issues that impact on our community. Stay safe everyone.