Editorials

Downtown Belleville's evolution sometimes looks like death, but buds keep growing

Here's how downtown Belleville businesses are faring

Downtown Belleville continues to evolve as more new businesses move in and some longtime establishments leave the historic thoroughfare.
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Downtown Belleville continues to evolve as more new businesses move in and some longtime establishments leave the historic thoroughfare.

Downtown Belleville has been "dying" since Oct. 31, 1974. That's when St. Clair Square mall opened in Fairview Heights.

In 1977 the city decided to save its historic business district by reducing sign clutter, planting trees and trying to create an outdoor mall feeling.

In 1985 a couple of indoor mini-malls were going to save downtown.

In 1993 they expanded the historic districts to control residential areas in the hope that the business areas would benefit. More parking and parks along Richland Creek were also part of the strategy.

In 2006 it was the $6.4 million Main Street "streetscape," with new sidewalks, fixtures, outside seating and a cleaner look. It was followed by the $6.2 million North Illinois Street "streetscape."

So here we are with visible vacancies, an empty hospital building and some long-time merchants seeking greener pastures. Again we wonder, "is downtown Belleville dying?"

We suspect the answer is as it has been since 1974.

The city has done well when it invested in itself and sought its niche. It attracts throngs during Art on the Square, with the Christmas attractions, and recently as streets were packed during St. Patrick's Day.

And people like to eat, drink and be entertained along that spruced-up downtown corridor.

"On the weekend at 7 or 8 o’clock, there’s a lot of life, a lot of activity," said Mike Lundy, executive director of the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority. His group and another are working to bring living space to downtown buildings.

There are plenty of retail challenges thanks to the brick-and-mortar retailers evolving into online merchants. Even the hot commercial property near Interstate 64 and Frank Scott Parkway in Shiloh to date has received lukewarm retail interest. The mall is no longer the pinnacle of shopping.

This 44-year "death" scene seems far from over. Expect evolution, not extinction, as stores find a new formula and downtown develops a new mix of retail, restaurants and residents.

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