Midtown rebirth: Lindenwood, crime lab give Belleville new purpose

News-DemocratMay 3, 2014 

— For the past decade, Belleville residents have heard about how Lindenwood University's Belleville campus and a planned Illinois State Police crime lab would change the Main Street corridor in west-central Belleville.

With the crime lab nearing completion and the second of two new Lindenwood dorms taking shape, Mayor Mark Eckert said the big-picture dreams of a renaissance for the area around the school are becoming a reality.

"What a major improvement we're seeing in that area," Eckert said. "As mayor, I and the whole city couldn't be more pleased. The crime lab building looks awesome. It was long awaited. But it's going to be worth it to have those services there and all the people it will bring to town. And I continue to be amazed by the wonderful things that Lindenwood is doing."

According to Eckert, the crime lab is expected to open in June. It will replace the existing Illinois State Police crime lab in Fairview Heights and will be the place where area police departments bring forensic evidence to be processed and analyzed.

Lindenwood-Belleville President Jerry Bladdick said he hopes the new dorm will be done by November.

"Like we did with the women's dorm last year, we're going to have to double up some of our students in our existing residential buildings and we've rented a block of rooms at a hotel in Belleville," Bladdick said. "But the weather has been more cooperative with the men's dorm than it was last year with the women's dorm. So we're hopeful of getting it done as soon as possible."

Bladdick said that the school had about 600 students living on campus when the fall semester of the 2013-14 school year started. Thanks to the addition of a women's dorm completed in January and when the new dorm is done, the capacity will be increased to 1,000 resident students.

Area being transformed

The changes have transformed an area where the future of the former Belleville Township High School, later Belleville West, moved to a new campus on Frank Scott Parkway West. Apartment buildings, houses and even a prominently placed church right across West Main Street from the school campus were in disrepair, Eckert remembered.

Lindenwood bought many of them up, rehabbing most to use as student housing while demolishing some properties that were too far gone to be saved. The new dorm is being built on the site of the New Freedom Baptist Church, which had been condemned shortly before church leaders sold it to the school.

"It wasn't long ago that the area of West Main Street around the school looked terrible, Eckert said. "We couldn't be happier with Lindenwood's continued vision. The school is providing a tremendous amount of opportunities for people of all ages. It's a great time for that corridor and that area of Belleville. And I think what we're seeing happened there will extend all the way to downtown before it's done."

Bladdick said the improvements haven't just helped make the city look better. They've helped Lindenwood attract people to the Belleville campus.

"I think it is becoming increasingly easier for us to recruit undergraduates and graduates to the Belleville because of the beautiful surroundings to go along with the programs and opportunities we offer," Bladdick said. "I always thought was a beautiful campus and residents always remind me not to take that for granted. I can assure them we won't."

While the next stage of development at Lindenwood-Belleville won't be as visible from the street, Bladdick said the school continues to make moves which allow it to both grow and to better serve it's population.

Next on the agenda is the repurposing of the former Belleville Township High School District 201 offices located in an annex to the rear of the main building. The space was used for study halls and the library when the site was Belleville West High School.

"The offices are going to be home to new business and financial aid offices and student advisor offices and we're relocating the library out of the Dixon Center into the former District 201 board room," Bladdick said, noting that the spot was the old Belleville West Library.

The library is being moved to make space for a major renovation to the campus dining hall which Bladdick said will remove the high school cafeteria feel in favor of a more sophisticated and personal university dining hall experience. And he said the new arrangement will allow for increased demands to serve a growing student population. It is the second time in five years the cafeteria space will be made over."

Looking toward growth

Eckert said he is hopeful a wave of new business development will come with the increased number of student residents in the area as well as the crime lab traffic.

"It's a matter of time," Eckert said. "We're going to see people venture out and take advantage of the number of students and workers in the area. Things will pop up all over around the campus. The owners of Flamingos, which will reopen the Maxwell's restaurant site on West Main Street, told me that they're excited to open because of Lindenwood and the crime lab."

The new dorm is expected to be very similar to the one being completed on South 23rd Street behind the crime lab. The first dorm covers 25,000 square feet, cost about $4 million to build and can handle 180 students.

About 1,900 students attend Lindenwood Belleville, which opened 10 years ago on the former campus of Belleville Township High School West. About 1,040 of them are full-time day students. Bladdick said Lindenwood hopes to eventually reach 1,200 full-time day students and 2,400 students overall on the Belleville campus.

The Belleville campus now has more than 80 full-time and part-time faculty and staff members.

Lindenwood has spent about $25 million to renovate and expand the former high school campus. Projects include $8 million for the two new dorms, $2 million to buy the former Travel Lodge motel on West Main Street and another $1 million to buy 20 houses which are used as student housing, $2 million for renovations to the campus football stadium, $1.2 million to create the communications center, $1 million for the student center improvements, and several hundred thousand dollars spent on landscaping and cosmetic work.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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