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Adapting to Thrive in the 21st Century: Thrifty, Crafty Revitalization Strategies


Take A Good Downtown, Make It Better

We’ve all heard the term “Good Bones” -- meaning, a solid foundation is in play to build from, add to and make better. Downtown Morris, Illinois definitely has good bones and like all great places, must continue to evolve to meet today’s changing marketplace.

At one time, Morris was home to fifteen grocery stores, six dry goods stores, four butchers, ten blacksmiths, and twenty saloons. A century and a half later, Morris still looks similar architecturally, but the way it functions, and the way Americans live, work, and play, is much different. The challenge? Adapting to thrive in the 21st century.


Midwestern Americana At Its Finest

Just sixty miles southwest of Chicago and nestled between I-80 and the Illinois River, the City of Morris is quintessential small-town Illinois. Think quiet, tree-lined streets, front porches, and an enduring sense of place. Walking down Liberty Street, the central artery of Downtown Morris, is like eating corn on the cob at a summer barbeque; Midwestern Americana at its finest.




Downtown Morris is anchored in history; bookended by the historic I&M Canal to the south and the old Chicago-Rock Island Railroad to the north. It is home to a collection of quaint storefronts and dining establishments dressed in brick facades and accessorized with 19th century architectural details that create an air of nostalgia. Summer months bring cruise nights, concerts on the courthouse green, weekend markets, and the annual Grundy County Corn Festival. Colder weather brings trick-or-treating, holiday shopping, and thematic window displays. At first glance, Downtown Morris may look like a Rockwellian portrait but a keen eye will see that the downtown is evolving.



Master Plan Sets Course to Leverage Strengths

In 2020, the City adopted a new Downtown Master Plan. The goal of this plan was to find attainable, affordable solutions that could take the downtown from good to great – to enhance an already healthy district and make it an even stronger center of civic life and regional destination for visitors. The plan leveraged local assets, accessibility and regional attraction power to spur small-scale, people-focused improvements. Colorful, creative and relatively inexpensive placemaking techniques were successfully and incrementally implemented, building and renewing small-town strength.

Flash-forward! Three years following plan adoption and Downtown Morris is thriving with fresh foot traffic and economic vitality. Alleyways and sidewalks are now home to alfresco dining patios; murals and art installations have taken up residence on buildings and benches; vibrant hanging planters adorn dozens of light poles; and a “brand” new identity was locally designed and rolled-out for the downtown. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the whole town, “greatness” has been channeled into Morris’ “good bones”... and they aren’t stopping there. Below are a few spotlights on how implementation seeds were planted and action has taken course.


 

Placemaking in Action: Implementation Case Studies


Ordinance Amendments Welcome Al Fresco Dining & Outdoor Activations

In 2020, one of the first downtown projects Morris tackled was amending local ordinances to allow outdoor dining at downtown food and drink establishments. This small change completely transformed the way downtown functioned. Once a necessity during the pandemic, outdoor dining is now a beloved staple in downtown Morris. Local businesses have introduced all forms of outdoor seating, including temporary picnic tables, more permanent outdoor patio setups with pergolas and lighting, and even alleyway activations with seating, murals and string lighting.


Light Up Liberty Campaign

How do you add instant ambiance? Lighting! The goal of “Light Up Liberty” was to enhance visual interest and corridor character via permanent festoon lighting along Liberty Street. Five key intersections were flagged and the City’s engineer worked with a local electrical contractor to develop plans and cost estimates. Readily available funds from Morris’s downtown organization provided capital to illuminate the first intersection and a happy domino fell into place(making) thereafter. Interest from the community sparked a successful GoFundMe campaign to help raise funds for the four remaining intersections. Those efforts, paired with monetary support from the City, provided the necessary financial resources to complete the “Light Up Liberty” campaign.



Vacant City-Owned Parking Turned Gateway Plaza

Gateways, like first impressions, matter. Recognizing an opportunity to improve their downtown’s front-door, Morris began to explore creative strategies to welcome visitors and create an “Instagram-worthy” destination. A city-owned lot across from City Hall and on busy Route 47 on the edge of downtown was prime for such a project. The City’s consultants created a quick sketch, and after a few meetings the Mayor said - “let’s do this!”. Public Works crews did much of the labor and local contractors installed the signs and landscaping. Morris residents and visitors are now greeted by a people-friendly namesake plaza filled with colorful, climbable letters and surrounded by picnic tables and fresh landscaping.


 

Creative Approaches to Raising Capital

The City of Morris has been innovative in their pursuit of funding to bring placemaking ideas to life, from partnering with local contractors and utilizing existing infrastructure, to championing support from the community-at-large and partnering with downtown businesses. For other efforts, the City has employed TIF funds, worked with private property owners and a local sign company to develop murals, and recently obtained a DCEO grant. TIF funds have also gone into spurring renovation of private buildings including the restoration of a well known local restaurant, Weits Café, and Grundy County’s oldest bar, K.J. McKeon’s.

Bigger isn’t always better - these placemaking efforts in Morris exemplify that. Sometimes small and crafty solutions are the key to re-energizing a downtown and building momentum for the next chapter of a thriving place.

Learn More:

Curious to find out how these tangible changes have contributed to daily traffic and activity in our Downtown? Explore the resource links below or plan a visit!

 

Is your community in need of revitalization? Have a challenging site? We're here for you! From community planning and engagement to urban design and strategic placemaking, Teska's innovative approaches and expertise develops winning solutions to ensure people, places, and communities thrive. We recognize that every space, place and project is different and special.


The APA-IL thanks Teska for being a 2022-23 Tier II Sponsor and supporting Great Communities for All in Illinois!

 

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