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Even though sales tax revenues have dropped for the City of Monticello both of the past two years, activity that has taken place in the downtown business district over the past year points to an upturn in 2017.
For example, 2016 saw $1.1 million invested in the blocks around the county courthouse, mostly in renovating buildings. The first floor vacancy rate has dropped from an estimated 25 percent two years ago to between 10 and 15 percent, according to estimates from city officials.
In addition, 12 new businesses opened or expanded in the downtown area last year, and several more have opened in the first quarter om 2017, including the Monarch Brewing Company brewpub and restaurant.
And a majority of the growth has come from within, several through a trio of five-week business bootcamp programs held over the past two years.
City of Monticello Director of Community Development Callie Jo McFarland admits “we’ve long had the challenge of what sandbox do these entrepreneurs play in and why can’t we ever be invited? So we could never find them.”
“So we had to home grow ‘em,” chimes in Kerry Redshaw, the director of the downtown-focused Monticello Main Street group.
In other words, those entrepreneurs were right in their own back yard.
Take Monticello’s Samantha Koon. The winner of the first $5,000 bootcamp grant in 2015 has started not one business, but three: The Zybell House bakery, Zybell House boarding house, and Monticello Mercantile.
“The (bootcamp) program was definitely helpful to me,” Koon said in a 2016 newspaper article. “The unique thing about it was that it connected me to other people in Monticello who are thinking about the same things.”
Other businesses locating in the downtown area in the past 15 months have also included the Golden Kitchen, Maxwell’s Discount, Huisinga Homes, a pair of video gaming establishments (Vegas Place and Debbie’s), two upper story photography studios (Andrew Marcel Photography and Click Studio), and Black Hat Barber & Shave Co.
And while the $5,000 bootcamp grants have helped, most of the business ventures started without it. And McFarland said filling storefronts hasn’t even been the bootcamp program’s main benefit.
“What happened was totally cooler. It actually created more of a network for business, where they are reaching out to each other for more information and for support and feedback, and we’ve created a culture where this is O.K. now,” she said.
“I don’t think they feel as alone as they used to,” added McFarland. “I mean, we’ve got someone from the second round (of bootcamp) that is reaching out to someone in the fourth group to mentor him because he wants to start a business. They’re creating their own little community.”
Redshaw feels bootcamp was the right prescription for a downtown that was ailing, which led to development efforts like the Premier Property Program and business bootcamp.
“It has helped to inject a sense of hopefulness in the downtown with the other small businesses. They’re interested,” said Redshaw.
McFarland added that buildings identified as “elephants in the room” two years ago are sorting themselves out. Monarch Brewing Company bought the former United Methodist Church and will now generate sales tax from a location that is notoriously hard to fill – an empty church building.
The city was also given the 15,771-square-foot former First Mid-Illinois Bank building, and on Monday approved a preliminary agreement with a possible developer.
There is still plenty of work to do. Most downtown buildings are over a century old, so the city wants to make sure they are safe. That has led to discussion regarding stricter adherence to building codes. Monticello is also interviewing candidates for a zoning inspector, a position that has been empty since the resignation of Abe Jones in September.
Hopes are not only for a revitalized downtown business district, but a recovery in sales tax revenues. That source brought in just over $1 million in 2014, but just $919,000 last year.
Monticello based its program on a similar one in Marion, Virginia called “Pop Up Marion,” which has reduced retail vacancy rates there from 16 percent to 6 percent in five years. Monticello’s numbers are starting to catch up with its mentor: Monticello’s $1.1 million in downtown investment is approaching Marion’s $1.8 million.
Monticello just finished up its third business bootcamp, naming Susie and Jeffrey Ryan the grant recipient. The couple is planning a startup business, Susie Lu’s Cakes & Pastries.
A fourth bootcamp session is planned for this fall.