OTTAWA, Ill. | Mike Sutfin remembers his first impression of Ottawa.
Empty storefronts, outdated street lights and an overall drab urban landscape offered him a gloomy impression of the city about 15 years ago.
"I thought, 'Wow, what a shame,'" the city's current building and zoning official said. "But now, it's like driving into Never Neverland."
Unlike any city in the Illinois Valley, Ottawa's downtown business district is flourishing despite a troubled economy locally and across the nation.
For the past 14 years businesses have slowly filled empty storefronts while existing shop owners turned their buildings into eye-popping points of historical interest. Flowers and greenery break up the constant sidewalk gray. And city and economic leaders keep foot traffic constant with new tourism ideas and other financial benefits to ensure shopkeepers get the most out of each dollar invested.
"A lot of people thought we were crazy back then, but when you have everyone working together it works," said Boyd Palmer, executive director of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry. "We're running out of storefront space to where our side streets are becoming retail areas."
A town hall meeting
One point raised by nearly 200 residents during an Ottawa town hall meeting in the late 1990s seemed to stand out the most, Palmer said.
"Do something, even if it's wrong — I remember that point because it really seemed to show just how desperate people were for something positive to happen," he said.
From that meeting, current Mayor Bob Eschbach and three city commissioners ran and won office by using that point and others in their campaign.
The new city leaders implemented initiatives that would ultimately lead to the city being recognized by federal and state economic and tourism agencies. They surrounded themselves with other city officials who carried the same vision for the city.
Step by step starting with installing historic street lights the city was able to make incremental changes, obtain grants for infrastructure upgrades and find tax incentives to help business and property owners upgrades their facades.
"When you aggressively go after historic district grants that allow business owners to recoup their cost, that makes them think about just sitting on their properties and not making improvements," Sutfin said. "We also don't tolerate substandard work that will need to be redone again in five years. The contractors know it, too. It's those little things that sometimes matter most."
A business perspective
About 12 years ago lifelong Ottawa resident Linda Reed had a conversation with Eschbach about opening a store downtown.
For a long time Reed had sold antiques, jewelry and assorted decorative items at flea markets and decided it was time to open her own store.
But investing when Ottawa's downtown business climate was barely existent gave her pause.
"The downtown looked like a desert back then." Reed said. "But after talking with him (Eschbach) we bought this building and put a lot of money into it."
Today, Deja Vu, a well-rounded antique shop, has a steady flow of customers.
"Making the town pretty has been a very big draw," Reed said. "We hear that all the time from our customers."
A bright future
Ottawa city leaders haven't stopped with the recent success. Many share a vision that includes making Ottawa the tourist destination in the Illinois Valley and Starved Rock State Park something fun people can do during their visit.
Ottawa economic director Reed Wilson said the fastest growing aspect of the city's economy is tourism. Promotional efforts such as marketing the Wine & Jazz Festival in areas in and around Chicago have paid off.
Additionally, Wilson said the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway and Starved Rock Country are increasingly valuable partners in getting the message out to tourists that Ottawa is a vibrant, fun weekend getaway.
"Ottawa is working to attract visitors to its downtown through the restoration of its historic architecture, beautification with trees and flowers and by encouraging the establishment of unique shops and restaurants," Wilson stated. "These have resulted in an ambiance which causes people to want to be in downtown Ottawa to shop, do business and, increasingly, even to live."
The city is fortunate to have two rivers — the Fox and Illinois — run through town. In the past, city leaders had no real way to market the two waterways. But soon the city will raze the old Central School building leaving them with 20 acres of green space Eschbach calls a "golden opportunity."
"Success builds upon success so you've just got to take a first step whether it's one garden or even one tree," Eschbach said.