A mid-size Illinois town has formulated a model for small business success reminiscent of JFK’s keen observation that a rising tide lifts all boats. So, while most enterprises advertise only their own products and services, Taylorville entrepreneurs have embraced marketing the businesses in their town as a whole. The response has been overwhelming.
Steve Craggs, president of Downtown Taylorville/Small Town Taylorville, describes the 501(c)3 as a community service organization. “2003 is when the original Taylorville Main Street organization was founded through a joint agreement with the state of Illinois and Taylorville,” he says. “Since then, it has morphed into being much more. It has become a citywide program with various projects, such as the Veterans Memorial at Lake Taylorville, the Farmer’s Market, the Christmas parade, the July 4th parade, Meet the Machines, downtown beautification, Small Town Taylorville Car Cruise, etc. In addition, we developed a citywide marketing program.”
Craggs, born and raised in Taylorville, moved away at one point but returned in 2006. In 2009, he was voted president of the Main Street group. Eventually, the group’s focus turned to the square, and the board decided to change the name to Downtown Taylorville. That organization still exists in conjunction with Small Town Taylorville, the latter of which is used for marketing purposes. “We would like to get it to one name at some point,” he says. “We’re doing that on a slow basis now that we’re gaining momentum as Small Town Taylorville.”
Turnkey to the process was establishing a business development district. “We had a consultant come from Edwardsville, who consulted with us about a state program which allows the establishment of a business development district (BDD) with an additional incremental tax that stays in the community and can be used for a variety of services within the district,” he explains. “With the use of BDD funds, we were able to come up with a matching fund grant program to attract business and investors into our downtown and throughout the business district in the city of Taylorville.”
Lee and Dyanne Skinner have also played a major role in marketing the town as a shopping destination. The couple owns several shops in Taylorville, including flagship Dear Yesteryear, Storehouse Market, Wonder & Rhyme, Talullah Jane’s Boutique and Elladee’s Boutique.
Dyanne’s entrepreneurial streak began 20-some years ago when she began making candles and stamping wooden candle lids. Later, after having children, she simplified her product line and launched an online label company, which soon became a booming business. When she and Lee met and eventually married, she realized she was ready for another creative venture. “‘Let’s open a store,’” she remembers telling Lee. “We were newly married. We were trying to find a place to live. And then this place popped up.”
The building, a former showroom for a kitchen and bath designer, was equipped with an upstairs apartment. The couple didn’t have high hopes for the living space but toured it just to rule it out. “God just opened the door for us,” Dyanne says, adding that the next thing they knew, they were living in that upstairs apartment and giving their new business venture a go.
Their store mixes “the best of the old and the trendiest of the new.” Its name, Dear Yesteryear, is a salutation to pieces from the past. “It’s like you’re writing a letter to the past and promising [it] that we’re not going to kick it to the curb anymore. We’re going to upstyle it and utilize it — whatever it takes to make it part of homes today,” says Dyanne.
About a year after opening Dear Yesteryear, they decided to incorporate an element from one of her previous pursuits — in the form of wax melts. “I created our own label, and I print [them]. That’s the full circle right there.” The Skinners now sell them in the store and online at waxmelts.com.
They didn’t stop there. “All five of our stores have stemmed out of seeing a section of this store do well,” she says. Elladee’s Boutique, located next door, came about when the Skinners noticed flannels and graphic T-shirts were flying off the shelves at their first store.
“I’ve never been an overly fashionable person, so I just assumed I couldn’t do it,” says Dyanne. “I learned that a lot of people are just normal like me. It works.” Next came Wonder & Rhyme on the square, born of a small baby section in their first store. This past June, they opened Tallulah Jane’s, geared toward girls ages 6 and up. “I thought little girls would appreciate a place of their own,” she says.
The Skinners’ experience as ever-evolving small business owners is a microcosm of Small Town Taylorville itself. Perhaps because of that, they were destined to be a part of its launch.
It started out with a simple map of all the town’s shops that Dyanne continues to help update and share with customers. “I had a lot of people question me. ‘You’re advertising for their businesses?’ As far as I’m concerned, it’s a customer courtesy,” says Dyanne. “Maybe they’ve driven 2 hours. I don’t want them to think, ‘Okay, well, that’s it.’ I mean, the more shopping and dining, the better day you are going to have.”
Craggs reached out to her about how to market the town. “I had purchased a book a few years prior. I read maybe two pages and got busy and didn’t read the rest. But after our meeting that day, I thought, ‘Where is that book?’ I started listening to it [the audiobook], and holy cow. It was exactly what we were all talking about wanting to do,” she says.
That book, “Town Inc.” by Andrew Davis, details how building a booming business and growing a prosperous town go hand in hand. The author advises business owners to market their town just as passionately as they market their own business.
“[Lee and I] were so pumped. We got hold of [Steve] and said, ‘You’ve got to listen to it,’” says Dyanne. “He was so excited that he provided everybody on the board with copies of it. Then he got copies for the mayor and the city council. That’s really what started this mission to market the town as a whole.”
From there, it was determined an advertising/marketing subcommittee was needed. Steve asked Dyanne if she would be interested in heading it up. She was. “It was her brainchild [to name it] Small Town Taylorville,” says Lee.
“Steve and our new subcommittee went to the city council with our marketing plan presentation, which initially focused on shopping and dining, based on that book. We had a plan, went in there with all our numbers, and we had facts to back it up,” Dyanne continues. Lee adds that those efforts are now bringing people from out of town, even out of state, to shop there.
“Now [we’re] starting to get noticed by investors wanting to come to town and develop. … They see it’s lucrative, what’s going on here,” he says. “[We’re] seeing some of these outside investors coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I want to be part of this,’ or ‘I want to buy some property, too.’
“It’s not uncommon for us on a Tuesday to get somebody from Nebraska … just to come and shop. Happens all the time. We get a lot of [people from] Indiana and Missouri,” Lee adds. “We feel it’s been a destination spot for about five or six years now.”
“It’s a lot of work. A lot of people are involved, other board members and every store that opens up every day, they’re part of the team effort to bring people to town,” says Dyanne.
Elizabeth Conaway, owner of CreativelyELC and the freelance digital content creator behind the scenes, is one of those people. “We started [during] COVID,” she says. “They wanted everybody to come back to town, and I had worked for Dyanne through her label company. I [had] started freelancing on my own doing graphic design and marketing for a handful of different businesses. Then Dyanne called me and said, ‘I think I have something that you can help us with.’ So, they hired me as a freelancer to do all the marketing design.”
According to Conaway, different pieces of the puzzle began to come together. “Steve was on Downtown Taylorville. Then Small Town Taylorville grew. We had a few meetings. We had business owners from retail, we had restaurant owners and different organizations throughout town; [they] told us what they thought, and everybody pitched in. We started organizing shopping events to get all the stores on the same page for one weekend every few months just to have a big draw to town.
“We planned how to launch our social media sites. We had a photo contest, and people could submit local images to be on our website,” she adds. “We made sure we were included on any tourism sites that we could find. Just any way that we could think of to get the word out about our town.”
The organization has seen consistent growth online since. “I think we’re averaging anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a month to our website, which is a huge number for a small town. That’s 2,000 to 3,000 potential shoppers and diners a month,” says Conaway.
“Our Facebook page has grown to 13,000 followers, and I’d say the majority are within a 50-mile radius. We all do our shopping in Taylorville. That’s where the grocery store is. That’s where the movie theater is,” she says. “I always try to come up with new ways to reach people. If I find something new or I find an award or a grant I think we should apply for, I do that as well as all the design work and website management.”
Coordination between business owners also benefits shoppers. “They flip their stores at the same time,” says Conaway. “In March, we do the spring shopping kickoff, and everyone puts out their new merchandise at the same time so when people come to town to shop, they can go to all 30-plus businesses and see all their new stuff at one time.”
She says they make sure to use a hashtag so everyone gets publicity during an event. “I typically will make a graphic for each sale. Then we create an event and all the stores are responsible for sharing [it] and marketing that way, because everything we do is at no cost to them. It’s like they have a free social media team. While we might not specifically focus on their business, we’re always promoting everyone.
“When you’re in social media and marketing, your goal is the numbers. … It’s nice to have the city back Small Town Taylorville and believe, ‘Okay, if we do invest in this project, we’ll see the return.’ [And] we can say we’ve had millions of eyes on our ads this year, between the billboards and print ads and social media.”
Uprooted by Willow & Birch, an offshoot of Willow & Birch Salon in Springfield, is owned by Jessica Kocurek and managed by her sister, Carli Hanlon. They opened in October 2020.
“The Small Town Taylorville Facebook [group] that we’re all a part of helps us stay in touch with one another. We’re always chatting with others to see what they are going to do for certain specials or times of year, [and we’re] always trying to collaborate with other businesses to do little events,” says Hanlon. “Small Town Taylorville has such a following now that it reaches so many people, which is great for all the small businesses, because we have tons of people coming here for shopping events.”
Kocurek explains the difference between being a business owner in a small town versus a city. “Small Town Taylorville does so many things to help the businesses around. Everyone comes together, and everyone’s a part of the event that’s happening, and you don’t have to pay to be a part of it. I think that’s a huge difference. When you’re in a larger city, you’re paying dues to be a part of this organization, and you’re wanting to pay to be in the Chamber of Commerce. You don’t always get a return on that investment. Your investment here is [opening] a business. Then the community is providing that support and that service to you, because you chose to open a business here. That’s pretty amazing.”
She adds that her business pulls in customers locally and from out of town. “People who live here do not want things to go away, so they avidly support it. They’ll support [us] before they go somewhere else,” she explains. “The community helps support all these businesses, so Small Town Taylorville will make sure the community knows what’s going on. It’s an ecosystem that works really well.”
Even with its increased growth, Kocurek doesn’t think Taylorville will lose its small- town charm. “I think it’s a mix. It’s the people, it’s the location, it’s the size. … I hope the newness never wears off,” she says. “We’ve been on this ride for a few years, and I feel like it’s only getting better.”