MENDOTA - When Bill Hunt got the ball rolling last year on a plan to begin revitalizing a one-block section of downtown Mendota, he knew the process would not be quick or easy. But Hunt, a long time Mendota alderman, strongly believed not only that it could be accomplished, but that the citizens of Mendota would step up to help make it happen. Now, less than a year later, Hunt is more convinced than ever.
Early last fall, Hunt announced the formation of a committee to get involved with the project. He invited all interested Mendota residents to take part and hoped to attract people of various ages and backgrounds who would collaborate on reviving the 700 block of Illinois Avenue. The group would focus on improving the street’s appearance and they would also sponsor outdoor, family friendly events.
The first committee meeting was held last September during which members were encouraged to bring ideas for what they envisioned. Hunt was thrilled with the response. “We have such a good group of people,” he emphasized. “Our meetings are well attended by a diverse group of people - senior citizens, young people, people with children, and people with varied backgrounds. There is a barrage of ideas, and that’s been fun.”
By December, the committee had organized its first downtown event. Hunt said it was very well attended, especially considering how cold the weather was that day. “We had hundreds of people here,” he recalled. “Families came out, and I’m convinced that people want to see something happen. I’m a big believer that the town will support stuff like this - it’s been so long in coming.”
A second event, Lunch with the Easter Bunny, took place at Veterans Park in April and again, Hunt was pleased with the turn out. “It was encouraging. Even through the weather wasn’t good, we still had a good crowd. People will come down here,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic about what we can do this summer - we’re going to try to do a lot more and take advantage of the warmer weather.”
In addition to community support, Hunt said being on the city council has certainly helped this effort move forward. Although he wanted as many people involved as possible, he also knew the city had to be on board. “The city is committed and they have done a great job as far as partnering with us,” he said. “I can kind of bridge both sides, so it gives me a little bit of advantage. But the city wants to see this be successful.”
In fact, the city will get the ball rolling this summer with some infrastructure projects on that block including installation of a manhole, sewer linings, storm inlet repair and water services. Hunt said this is work that was going to be addressed at some point anyway, so the city decided to go ahead now. “The city has money set aside for that, so it will happen,” he noted.
The goal is to have all the infrastructure work completed before the 2020 Sweet Corn Festival. While people often think changes should happen quickly, Hunt says the disrepair did not happen overnight and it is not going to be fixed overnight. “But doing nothing is not the answer,” he emphasized. “Do nothing and it will stay like this. People ask how many businesses are coming in but that’s secondary. You build it, they will come. But doing nothing, you’ll never see businesses in town.”
Hunt noted that he does not expect to see huge retail markets in Mendota. “You’re going to have to turn it into a niche business area. Have some outdoor cafes, where you can do alfresco in the summer, something like that,” he explained.
Some ideas for the revitalization have come from other nearby communities, such as LaSalle, Ottawa and Utica, that have already completed similar types of projects. “We don’t want to copy anybody but you’re certainly going to take good ideas and run with them,” Hunt commented.
Even though the infrastructure work will take some time, the committee is planning more events for this summer. Hunt hinted that they might partner with a restaurant and maybe get some food trucks and music downtown on a Friday night. “We want it to be a free, family friendly event,” he said. “People want to be able to take their children to community events.”
Also this summer, Hunt hopes to hold an open house for the public where he can give a presentation showing some of the ideas for beautification. Currently, the committee is looking at various possibilities such as banners, hanging baskets, benches, tree grates, brick pavers, a four-faced clock, even an overhead arched sign. Since these tend to be high priced items, he plans to reach out to the business community and other groups and individuals for larger donations when the time comes.
But Hunt cautioned that he does not want people to get hung up on specific pictures. “We’re all not going to like what’s shown but it gives us some ideas,” he explained. “I like all of it but it comes down to what’s practical, what can we do? I tell people to stand by, it’s going to be good.”
To keep the community up-to-date on the project, the committee has a Facebook page, Imagine Mendota. Hunt said it’s intended to be a positive page and so far, the response has been excellent.
“We have positive things going on in Mendota,” Hunt said. “We have a world class school, parks, and great companies that support everything. I know there’s a lot of negatives but I’ve seen a lot of changes over the 10 years I’ve been on city council and working with a great group of people. We’re all pulling in the same direction.”
Likewise, Hunt feels confident in the committee that has formed for this project. “It’s a great group of people and they’re determined,” he said. “You probably have an age group from people in their 70s to their 20s. That happens very seldom but it’s working, it’s meshing with everybody doing the right thing.”
With the project off to a good start, Hunt believes it is important to keep the community informed on progress and make people feel a part of it. “This is not one person or a group, it’s for the town,” he said. “We might not be successful overall, but we’re going to give it a shot.”