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  • Judy Tighe, CMSM

Local Support Vital for a Vibrant Downtown

Jacksonville Main Street began by doing what it still does – bringing people together with a common goal, breaking big problems down into doable projects, and creating the solution ourselves. Concerned citizens, with only technical guidance from National Main Street and Illinois Main Street, began taking baby-steps in saving downtown from despair.

For 20 years, Jacksonville Main Street has devoted all its resources and energy to making a vibrant downtown. With its mission to enhance the perception, quality of life, and long-term economic health of the entire Jacksonville Community through a coordinated and sustained effort to revitalize the city’s downtown district, the volunteer-driven non-profit has made great strides with one key factor: local support.


Despite being around for two decades, many people are still not clear on how Jacksonville Main Street works and some still don’t even know about it. Truth is, Jacksonville Main Street (JMS) has been and continues to be involved with a lot of projects that improve life in our area. But, in order to truly appreciate the successes of this organization, a recap of what downtown was like is necessary.


Historically, downtowns are the heart of every community. Their heritage and character reflect the town’s challenges and development and provide the perfect unique setting for all aspects of life to converge. Because downtowns hold so much of a community’s flavor, it is vital to preserve their remnants of the past while making adaptations for the future.


In 1999, 27% of downtown Jacksonville buildings were vacant and disinvestment was at an all-time high, with barely two dozen retailers and eateries, and virtually no storefront parking. Area groups tried to keep downtown alive with flea markets and Christmas activities, but few events occurred in the historic central business district because it was viewed as the dangerous unsightly place to avoid. In fact, people went out of their way to avoid bringing visitors downtown at all. State preservation and development agencies even used Jacksonville as the example of “what not to do” downtown.


While volunteers are the backbone of the organization, donations and sponsorships are the lifeblood of Jacksonville Main Street.

Jacksonville Main Street began by doing what it still does – bringing people together with a common goal, breaking big problems down into doable projects, and creating the solution ourselves. Concerned citizens, with only technical guidance from National Main Street and Illinois Main Street, began taking baby-steps in saving downtown from despair.


JMS was the driving force behind the Downtown Turnaround Project to reverse physical changes of Urban Renewal from the 1970s (which was undertaken in response to negative impacts from big box stores, shopping malls, and the advent of interstate travel).

The group advocated the project for ten years and took steps to enable the City to take on the work it required: JMS coordinated removal of the canopies that once surrounded the square and blocked storefront visibility; JMS purchased a quadrant building blocking the former roadway and eventually demolished it, setting the tone for the project; JMS bought a second quadrant building, allowing the City time to ready plans for the square restoration; JMS administered the City’s Façade Grant Program, leveraging $100,000 for canopy repairs into over $750,000 in preservation-friendly building renovations; JMS supplied office space for project leaders throughout two phases of work and acted as a liaison between businesses and engineers to help facilitate project work while daily trade continued; JMS helped celebrate the reopening of the square and arterial entrances.


While all that was happening, the organization was also busy with other projects. JMS volunteers raised $16,000 for repairs to the iconic Civil War Monument. More volunteers and community partners teamed up to rehabilitate a condemned drug house into a family home, earning the state’s highest preservation award in the process. Other JMS volunteers developed beautification projects that provided trees, hanging flower baskets, banners, information kiosk, holiday decorations, and the beloved Wall Dog Murals that are now a popular heritage tourism attraction downtown. The group helped partner organizations get Looking for Lincoln Wayside exhibits installed and develop the Voices of Lincoln Audio Tour.

JMS hosted Upper Story Tours and Space Walks to encourage loft apartment development and reduce vacancies. Public events, like the Progressive Patio Party and Bridal Expo, that highlighted downtown businesses were produced. And JMS celebrated every victory with a public party! Jacksonville Enterprise Zone Development Corporation, a JMS subsidiary, offers low interest and forgivable loans for property improvements, and was involved in making the Downtown Commons housing project possible.


By 2012, Jacksonville Main Street had accumulated 26 Lt. Governor’s Awards in Excellence in Downtown Revitalization, a Governor’s Hometown Award, and was named a Great American Main Street Award winner.


Today, over 180 businesses can be found within the JMS district, which has over 300 properties. Vacancy rates in the 44-square-block district are below 6% and there are nearly 50 dining and shopping options downtown. Events are held throughout the year, with at least a dozen sponsored by JMS. More than 80 buildings have seen renovations, with several winning state awards for the rehabilitation work. Downtown was also recently named a National Register Historic District.


How does all this work get done? With local support.


While volunteers are the backbone of the organization, donations and sponsorships are the lifeblood of Jacksonville Main Street.


JMS has grown and now Event Coordinator Melissa Zoerner works with the full-time Executive Director, but this 501(c)3 charitable organization does not receive ANY state or federal funding for its operation. The City of Jacksonville contributes less than 20% of the non-profit’s annual budget, with the remaining coming from grants for specific projects, donations, and event proceeds.


JMS has built strong partnerships with other local organizations, and that teamwork helps more esteemed projects get done. JMS is proud to work with Jacksonville’s Chamber, Conventions and Visitors Bureau, Economic Development Corporation, County Departments, and City Departments/Commissions to help improve the community.

Along with these partnerships, volunteers are crucial to project success… and there is always room for more people and groups to get involved as event volunteers and project committee members.

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Jacksonville Main Street

PO Box 152

Jacksonville, Illinois 62651

Email: info@jacksonvillemainstreet.com

Phone: 217-245-6884

Registered Charity: 37-1378193

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