We’ve all seen it while driving across rural Illinois – small towns, once thriving, filled with vacant buildings.
Situated on the bank of the Illinois River in central Illinois, sits the small town of Havana, population 3,197. This sleepy little municipality was declining as downtown businesses shuttered or moved to the outskirts of town. It is one of many cities that have suffered over the past 50 years due to an exodus of young people, the draw of big box stores in nearby cities, closure of industry and construction of highways bypassing downtown business districts.
Havana Mayor Brenda Stadsholt says, “I think many small towns like ours saw a decline in the 70s and 80s because larger cities had malls and more shopping opportunities. It forced a lot of small shops to close as people went to Peoria, Springfield, Macomb or Canton to shop. Nearby Canton also had the International Harvester plant close. It was a combination of economic factors.”
A retired educator, Stadsholt first became interested in making a difference in her community when she was asked by the local college to teach an institute called Senior Retirement Advantages. For five years, it was her responsibility to choose 10 leaders from each class to go out and make a difference in their community. Those leaders joined forces in 2008 and created a volunteer committee that renovated the Riverside Club, a former USO club.
The committee formed a foundation and renovated the building. She and two other members were on the city council and went to meetings and asked for monies to help renovate the club. With the renovation complete, the space is rented for special events and is a focal point as it overlooks the river.
When Stadsholt assumed the mayorship, her focus was on downtown revitalization. Stadsholt, Ron Hill, former Havana economic development director, and the city council looked at comprehensive studies and came up with a plan. Previously, tax increment financing (TIF) funds had only been used for street projects. In 2016, a program was developed to offer business owners TIF funds to cover 75 percent of improvements on historic buildings. Owners saw it as their opportunity.
“Since 2013, Havana has been blessed with people with visions, dreams and the desire to preserve our history,” says Stadsholt. “The stars aligned, and owners were motivated to save our downtown.”
One of the first projects was a streetscape program that changed the red brick streets to allow for parking and replaced the crumbling steps up to the sidewalks with curbing to make it safer and more accessible. New streetlights and landscaping were added.
The mayor says the streetscape was the biggest challenge she has faced because many were against investing money downtown and probably weren’t interested in tourism or growth. But she persisted. Reversing the downward trend required the work of forward-thinking people who imagined what Havana could be.
Stadsholt worked to create committees within the community that provided a cross-section of residents with an emphasis on ages 25-55. “That age group has great ideas and are very supportive of updating the streets and making it look more contemporary and touristy,” she explains.
Brenda Davenport-Fornoff, current economic development director and Menard Electric Cooperative member, says part of the challenge has been changing the mindset of people to work collaboratively instead of competitively.
“We’re getting there but aren’t there yet,” says Davenport-Fornoff. “They realize people will visit Havana from 1-2 hours away but aren’t going to do that for one or two boutiques, or one restaurant. Even if they don’t visit your restaurant on that particular visit, if they have a good time, they’ll be back and try a different restaurant or lodging opportunity.”
As streets were modernized, individuals began restoration on historic buildings lining the blocks. As one building was completed, others were seeing the vision. Local craftsmen are seeing a boost in business as they complete much of the work.
While not all business owners can afford to do major restorations, they want their businesses to look better, and a façade program was established. The city goes 50/50 with businesses to update their façade including painting, signage, new awnings and windows, all in keeping the historical feel of the buildings.
As more participate, it motivates others because they don’t want to be that one business that sticks out for the wrong reason.
“For many years, downtown was the red-headed stepchild,” says Chamber of Commerce President April Burgett. “Buildings were falling in and all new development was on the outskirts. No town is vibrant without an active business district. The problem is, you can bypass Havana and never see the downtown district.”
A priority is getting signage to direct people downtown and blade signs for businesses so visitors can see at a glance what is available.
Two years ago, Burgett and husband David, Spoon River Electric Cooperative members, purchased the formerly decrepit Mason County Bank building. Erected in 1888, it was one of three banks in Havana and had gone through many modifications before finally being closed. When the bank failed during the Depression, a second story was added to the building. The downstairs was retail space and the second floor held offices for doctors and lawyers.
“When we bought the building, all the upstairs windows were broken and it needed a lot of stone masonry work because everything was coming apart,” says April. “It had been boarded up for about 60 years and there were no working utilities. The flat roofs hadn’t been maintained so there was water damage from the failing roofs. It took us 16 months to restore.”
The Burgetts did demolition and hired a local stone mason and master plasterer to restore the building to its former glory to convert the space into lodging. They kept historical aspects including a large metal fire door from the bank. When the plaster lathe was removed, it revealed ornate crown molding that mimicked the façade on the outside of the building. Although the rest of the building was in shambles, the north loft, which was originally a lawyer’s office, was surprisingly intact. The walls were covered with a warm polished wood and a fireplace which are part of that loft.
The Loft was completed in July 2020 and the Burgetts were surprised at the interest generated on Airbnb. They hoped for a 25 percent occupancy rate when they opened, and were surprised with 60 percent August through October last year. Including The Loft and The Opera House Guest Suites, above the Mason County Democrat office, there are currently about a dozen Airbnb lofts for lodging in downtown Havana.
April says, “You know you’ve found your true passion when you can’t stop.” She and David are 14 months into another project on the south side of Main Street. He joked the building was in such bad shape, “we just bought two brick walls and an address.”
They have since leased it to a professional photographer and are nearing completion. Using the 50/50 program, they replaced windows and updated the façade.
April pointed out that much of the downtown revitalization has been a woman-driven project. Davenport-Fornoff says probably 95 percent of downtown businesses are female-owned or are owned by a couple with the wife taking the lead.
“The future is female in Havana,” says April. “Brenda our mayor, Brenda our economic development director, and I’m president of the Chamber. We have a group that we refer to as the Lady Bosses. We try to meet quarterly to discuss planning and marketing. In the past, it was sort of an ‘every man for himself mentality’ but we are teamwork driven, have partnerships and the ladies just work together. We are so much bigger together – pieces of a puzzle that just fit together. Having multiple boutiques and other businesses brings people into town and it’s good for everyone.”
Davenport-Fornoff says there has been an accounting office, preschool, antique store and bookstore downtown for many years. Now there are multiple boutiques, a paint studio, hair salon, consignment shop, upscale thrift store, home goods store and more in the works. Some of the businesses moved downtown after seeing the momentum.
Former resident Julie Morgan Morrisette moved from California, bought her parent’s house, and purchased a building “she fell in love with.” She had layers of plaster removed from the walls to reveal the original brick and upon removal of the drop ceiling, discovered skylights. In the 1930s, the shop was a bakery with a full kitchen in the back.
Gisela’s Haus opened 1.5 years ago selling a variety of household items and she has plans to offer cooking classes. One eye-catcher is Gigi, a window mannequin that dons different dresses depending on the season. Julie uses her fashion design background to drape dresses from sheet music, cornstalks, evergreen, etc. and Gigi has her own following on Facebook.
She is also renovating the store next door into a craft beverage shop with a sidewalk café she plans to open this summer. She plans to offer craft beverages including coffee and beer along with baked items and charcuterie boards.
An art gallery featuring local artists and a coffee shop with baked goods are planning to open on Plum Street soon.
One business they all agree is missing from downtown is a great breakfast spot. “We are an agricultural community,” says Stadsholt. “Farmers get up at 5:30 a.m. and don’t want just coffee and pastries, they want a big hearty breakfast.”
Additionally, they would like to see the renovation of the historic Lawford Theatre, and its original marquee, to be used for local plays and possibly school plays or activities. The city is working with owners because the roof needs to be replaced along with other updates. Prior to the pandemic, it had country-western opera that was popular.
April is a business manager for the University of Illinois Biological Field Station currently located on the river north of downtown. She revealed that it has been in talks with the city for the past two years and plans to erect a $7 million field station with a visitors’ center just south of Main Street on the river. The center is world-renowned, which will bring field trips and tourism to the site. It partners with the Illinois Fish and Wildlife Service, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Emiquon Nature Conservancy and Chautauqua National Wildlife Service. The visitors center will help drive business downtown.
Every weekend until October, the city hosts First Fridays downtown when shops are open later and Second Saturday Riverfront concerts. The concerts got a boost with the help of singer/songwriter Edward David Anderson who moved to Havana. He and his wife have been in Havana for eight months and own Black Dirt Records. They are collaborating with the city to bring a vibrant music scene. Their contacts in the music industry are vital to bringing in acts.
Another popular venue is the outdoor beer garden, especially during the pandemic. It regularly features live music. The park along the river is a relaxing spot and the marina offers spots for boats to dock along with rentals of kayaks and canoes.
What does the future hold? Mayor Stadsholt would like Havana to be a hub for tourism including a small hotel overlooking the river and more gift shops/boutiques. “I’d like us to still be economically sound and have an extension of our TIF, which expires in December, or a new one drawn up.”
Davenport-Fornoff says the council has been working on new grants for signage and for replacing crumbling steps, walls, etc. on the historic water tower. The tower is on Landmark Illinois endangered places and the National Registry of Historic Places.
The group would also like to see downtown murals and everyone taking pride in their homes to show others as they enter the city.
“We always say we were sitting on a gold mine,” says Stadsholt. “We got the right miners to come in and mine that gold. We have a bright future.”
Visit historichavanaillinois.com for more information.