Fairview Heights was just a collection of homes and businesses along the road between Belleville and Collinsville before residents voted to incorporate in 1969.
St. Clair Square opened five years later, followed by strip malls and big box stores, but the city never really had a “downtown.”
Today, some people think of Lincoln Trail as the city’s Main Street, and that’s why Economic Development Director Paul Ellis and other officials are so intent on revitalizing it.
“We’re not going to wait for areas to drop off the economic map and then come back 20 years later and act like pioneers and start all over again,” Ellis said. “We’re trying to help them transition to the next generation of retail.”
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Most of the older Lincoln Trail businesses are between Illinois 159 and Bunkum Road, part of both an enterprise zone and a tax-increment-financing district. That makes them eligible for incentives such as grant money for site improvements and sales tax waivers on building materials.
In addition, the city can use TIF funds for its own projects.
Lincoln Trail businesses in the older section range from gas stations to restaurants, hair salons to used-car lots, law offices to pawn shops, insurance agencies to dollar stores. Some are in better shape than others.
Here’s what is being done now in the name of a Lincoln Trail Renaissance.
Site improvement grants
Ellis has stepped up efforts to promote the Lincoln Trail TIF Facade and Site Improvement Program, which allows TIF district businesses to get grants of up to $75,000 to help pay for projects if they follow design standards related to building materials, signage, landscaping, etc.
“They have to follow a checklist,” Ellis said. “We don’t just throw the money at them. We’re trying to make that strip more consistent and more attractive aesthetically.”
Four Lincoln Trail businesses have made $2 million worth of improvements and applied for nearly $300,000 in grants recently, he said. That includes Perfect Finish Auto Center, McKay NAPA Auto Parts, Auto Spa and Meineke Car Care.
Perfect Finish owner Steve Giger spent about $500,000 to repaint his main building, add a second building, clean up the parking lot and make other improvements. He expects to receive about $74,000 from the city in three installments.
“I guess it’s a good program,” Giger said. “It’s going to benefit the city by generating more tax revenue and creating more jobs. ... If you could take some of the bureaucracy out of it, it would be a better program. But that’s the government.”
The application and documentation process can be challenging for some business owners. That’s why Ellis has started training local bankers to provide assistance while they’re setting up project financing.
Last month, the first trainee group included Amy Kempfer, branch manager at Associated Bank in Fairview Heights.
“It’s helping us, but it’s also helping the city,” she said.
Grant School project
Grant Middle School also has participated in the Lincoln Trail TIF Facade and Site Improvement Program in the past year. The district spent $450,000, making it eligible for $62,000 in grant money.
The project included updates to the building facade; reconfiguration of the parking lot to solve drainage problems; construction of a second parking lot; widening of the student drop-off and pick-up lane; additional sidewalks; and installation of new lighting, signage and landscaping.
“Probably my favorite part is that we added a digital marquee,” said Superintendent Matt Stines. “It’s a great communication tool. It’s easily updated. It’s highly visible. It really enhances the messages we give to parents and the community.”
The school district didn’t make improvements because of the grant, he said, but the city’s requirements led to a better outcome. The extra cash also made the marquee possible.
The school will be indirectly affected by the city’s TIF expenditure of $115,000 to buy a vacant building across Bunkum Road at 10035 Lincoln Trail in April. Officials plan to spend another $15,000 to demolish it and make the land available for redevelopment.
“It was property that just wasn’t going anywhere, and it was starting to become dilapidated,” Ellis said.
The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis also has an office along Lincoln Trail in Fairview Heights.
Michael K. Holmes, regional vice president of workforce development and strategy, is working with Ellis on the idea of creating an entrepreneurial incubator to help minorities and women start new businesses in the neighborhood.
They’re in the early stages, developing goals, identifying possible funding sources and recruiting partners such as Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Lindenwood University-Belleville.
“There are people out there who would like to own their own business, but they don’t have a business plan,” Holmes said. “They don’t have financing. They don’t even have an office. Maybe they have a business in their home, but they’d like to get out in the community.”
Holmes is looking for a Lincoln Trail building that could house the incubator. It would be a “one-stop shop” for everything from planning and marketing to legal and financial services, he said.
Another idea that’s floating around in his head is shared office space, where people with small businesses could network and divide rent and utilities. It’s a concept that has worked in other cities.
“This could be a fresh start for some people,” Holmes said.
Sidewalks and bus shelters
The City of Fairview Heights recently completed Phase I of a five-year, $360,000 project to replace sidewalks and install 10 bus shelters along Lincoln Trail, from Illinois 159 to Bunkum Road. Workers plan to start Phase II soon.
Ellis joined the city staff in November. He credits former Economic Development Director Mike Malloy for establishing many of the business incentive programs he’s now promoting.
Efforts along Lincoln Trail go hand-in-hand with a two-year, $5 million project that started this summer along Commerce Lane and Market Place to the north. It will include a roundabout, new curbs and gutters, trees and other plantings, sidewalks, signs and medians with decorative street lights.
“It will make it more attractive, it will slow traffic down a bit and it will reduce congestion,” Ellis said last spring.
Workers are widening Market Place from five to six lanes at Illinois 159, adding an extra lane for eastbound traffic heading straight to St. Clair Square. Going west, the road will narrow from six to four lanes at Plaza Drive, near FedEx, and eventually drop down to two lanes.
Two other changes are expected to reduce congestion. An island will divide westbound and eastbound traffic on Market Place at Illinois 159, and cars going south on Plaza Drive or north from Fairview City Centre near Taco Bell will no longer be allowed to go straight or turn left, only right.
Phase II is the roundabout, and Phase III will cover Commerce Lane going north and south from the roundabout and Market Place from the roundabout to the end of Phase I.
“It will be wonderful after it’s done, but in the meantime, we’re going to be in trouble,” King’s Beauty Supply employee Sue Brodsky said when the project was announced. “People don’t like to go to businesses where work is being done. But when it’s over, it’s going to be wonderful.”