Letter: Suggestions for improving downtown Shawnee
For years, Shawnee has talked about revitalizing downtown and various organizations with that goal in mind have come and gone, all contributing to some extent.
The latest effort was by the Historic Shawnee Alliance (HSA), a group that successfully promoted renovating downtown buildings (aided by the city’s façade grant program). Enthusiasm ran high as storefronts along Main began to take on a new look. This success continued until 2019 when the city suddenly rejected the HSA’s request for $12,000 to continue the grant program. Although budget was cited, the city granted increases to other organizations and appropriated $600,000 for the Blue Zones Broadway Project. Having served as the HSA president for 5 years, I saw this as a lack of appreciation and support for all we had accomplished and hoped to accomplish. Shortly afterward I resigned as president and the HSA joined the ranks of those who went before us.
Respondents to a survey conducted by the company that developed the 2019 Comprehensive Plan said strengthening downtown as a destination was one of their top three priorities. So, is now the time to form another organization? If so, I have advice for city officials and whoever may serve on a new board:
Involve stakeholders. Downtown belongs to the citizens and building/business owners. In 2000, it was a Citizens Advisory Committee that proposed the Streetscape Project.
Develop an incentive program for restoring older buildings. Earlier this year, Monticello, IL boosted its downtown grant from $3,000 to $10,000 and started seeing immediate interest from property owners.
Prioritize lasting improvements over single events. Christmas decorations are pretty but lose their luster in front of dilapidated buildings. Fireworks are pretty but cost thousands and fade from memory as quickly as they fade in the air.
Enforce the Downtown Property Maintenance Code. You have only to drive down Main Street and see broken/boarded windows and peeling paint to know the code is not being enforced.
Leave storefront parking alone. Main Street already lost 22 parking spots to Streetscape. If the city is successful in restoring downtown, the remaining storefront parking will be sought after and an incentive for people to go downtown.
These are only a few suggestions. There is much more that needs to be done. But this will work only if the city’s leaders care about the history and culture of downtown and value it as a contributor to economic development.
Shawnee/Downtown Business Owner