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Expert offers ways to revitalize downtown areas in rural Illinois

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(The Center Square) – A 2023 survey of rural challenges revealed that inactive downtowns are an ongoing problem for rural communities in Illinois, but an economic development expert says it doesn’t have to be that way.

The survey showed that the “downtown is dead” response was second on a list of responses on the challenges facing rural communities just behind a “shortage of good housing.”

A recent webinar by the University of Illinois Extension offered strategies that communities can utilize to develop vibrant downtown areas.

Pam Schallhorn, University of Illinois Extension specialist in Community and Economic Development, said downtown events will lure people to town.

“It doesn’t have to be done more than once and it doesn’t have to be that perfect, you need to be bringing something downtown, and the more you can bring downtown, the better,” said Schallhorn.

Due to a changing landscape, Schallhorn said relying on retail to support a downtown is not realistic, and a town like LaSalle, which is known for a thriving retail sector, is an outlier.

“Retail is rare, so I am not saying to focus on retail,” said Schallhorn. “What we want to focus on is art, music and food. What we want to focus on is entertainment. It should be an entertainment district.”

Some Illinois communities have tried to make their downtown areas more aesthetic by enacting sign ordinances, like in Galena.

Schallhorn said preserving a downtown area may be an option for many communities.

“I see a lot of communities that are now saying we want to be like a historic district downtown,” she said. “We want to save these buildings, plus there are some great historic tax credits.”

Schallhorn said several Illinois communities have revitalized their downtowns, pointing to Greenville, Ottawa and Centralia.