Bill Hunt, left, accepts a $500 donation toward a recently created downtown rejuvenation project in Mendota from former Mendota resident Ken Gehler. Hunt is spearheading the effort, which aims to involve the community in bringing new life to the downtown area by encouraging new types of businesses and activities. (Reporter photo by Bonnie Morris)
MENDOTA - Like many people who grew up in Mendota, Ken Gehler has very fond memories of his hometown. Although he moved away in 1961, Gehler always looked forward to returning to Mendota for visits each summer.
In recent years, he couldn’t help but notice the ongoing deterioration of Mendota’s downtown area, though. “This year, I was just riding around town and I started thinking that we need to stir the community up and start rejuvenating,” he said.
Gehler phoned another former Mendotan, Bill Greenwood, and mentioned his concern. “Bill said he thought Bill Hunt was working on a downtown project and suggested getting in touch with him,” Gehler recalled. “After reading a newspaper article about the project, I called Bill [Hunt] and said I wanted to help out.”
For Gehler, that meant pledging $500 toward the project as well as getting another $500 from Bill Greenwood and then writing an article for the newspaper to help spread the word so others within the community might be motivated get on board (see below).
“I live in Columbia, S.C. but I come back here every summer for five to seven weeks,” Gehler said. “I can’t help out a lot from South Carolina but I am a good fundraiser.”
Hunt, who has served as a Mendota alderman for the past 10 years, said he had been seriously thinking about doing a downtown project for about a year. “We’re trying to repurpose a street in Mendota that’s been sorely lacking as far as business,” he explained. “We want to think outside the box in how we redevelop Illinois Avenue. It could be a combination of rehabbing some of the buildings, some infrastructure, some of the lighting and trying to attract new people to move into some of these abandoned areas.”
Hunt emphasized that there has been some progress made downtown. “First State Bank has been great - what they did on Washington Street is outstanding and you see other new buildings in town, so it’s not out of the question to do this,” he said. “Mendota’s not unique - look around the Illinois Valley and so many towns are suffering the same thing. I think it’s incumbent on people, the city government and actually the citizens of the town to see what they want to do. This is not going to be an easy process. No worthwhile project is ever going to be easy.”
With the continual move toward online shopping, Hunt believes it is necessary to rethink downtown businesses. “We have to ask what we can we do that’s going to be different. What will attract niche businesses? Do we need business incubators? These are all ideas that we’re going to talk about,” he said. “We have a very, very good core group of eight people who are going to be on the committee with me and who want to help advance what we’re trying to do.”
Once word about the project got out, Hunt said he rather quickly had several people volunteer to serve on the committee and a few others accepted his invitation to join the core group. “It’s a very diverse group of people with all different kinds of ideas. It’s nice to have different areas of knowledge and different perspectives.”
The group’s first official meeting will be on Sept. 10 and regular meetings will continue throughout the fall and winter. “The intent is to see some actual movement in the spring when we start doing some tangible things that people can see,” Hunt said. “We’ll work with the city, they’re 100 percent for it too.”
Most importantly, Hunt hopes the whole community will take ownership of the project and help make the downtown an attractive destination. Long range, he sees the potential of having Friday night events, possibly bringing in food trucks and having free concerts. “These are some ideas, we’ll see where they go as time goes on,” he said. “We have to start small and keep working our way up but I really think people want to see this succeed. Any kind of support is appreciated - moral support, financial or anything.”
After a lifetime of adventures, Gehler, now 80, looks forward to his annual visits to Mendota as much as ever. “Starting on New Year’s Day, I begin the countdown - I love coming back here,” he said with a chuckle.
Now with a new focus for his visits, Gehler said he will mainly stick to fundraising but emphasized that he is willing to do whatever he can. “If there’s some project I can help out with, I’ll do it but I’m 80 years old and suffering from Agent Orange so I can’t do a whole lot,” he said. “I just want to get out there and excite people and get them to donate something - whether it’s time, talent or money.
“It’s my nature to help other people - God gave me some talents and I want to use them. The way I look at it, if I can’t be helping someone out, there’s no need for me to even be hanging around,” Gehler commented, “but I do want to hang around long enough to see this new project happen.”
Anyone interested in getting involved is asked to contact Hunt by phone at (815) 883-4712 or e-mail [email protected].
Helping my hometown
By Ken Gehler
I have been coming back to my hometown Mendota for well over 20 years to renew my roots. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing old friends and to the enjoyment of meeting great new friends each summer who take the place of old friends who have departed.
The last few years, the great city of Mendota’s downtown has begun to look old. I was excited when I heard about Bill Hunt’s endeavor to rejuvenate downtown starting with Illinois Avenue.
Mendota has a first class railroad museum, historical museum, agriculture museum and a chapel to be proud of as a part of its downtown. I am convinced that the rejuvenation of downtown will attract new business and reverse its present direction.
Bill Hunt is as excited as I am about getting this project underway. It will not be easy but I strongly believe that if people and organizations get excited and donate skills, time and money, there is no doubt in my mind that the fine caliber of people in Mendota will ensure that this project will be successful.
I fully expect when I return next summer I will be proud to see the rejuvenation in full swing. I am donating $500 to kick start the project and after talking to Bill Greenwood, he is matching my donation with another $500 - and we do not live in Mendota.
Many churches send teenagers on summer missions to help clean up impoverished areas and they come back with a great sense of pride in their accomplishments. So, men, women and even teenagers, let’s jump in and use your talent and work ethic to make this a successful project. We owe this rejuvenation of Mendota to our younger generation.