For the second year in a row, the Evanston Urban Renewal Agency/Main Street has been named a semifinalist for a Great American Main Street Award. Last year, 10 semifinalist communities were named from across the country; this year, there are eight semifinalists.
“The Great American Main Street Award is a top honor within the commercial district revitalization field,” said Patrice Frey, President and CEO of the National Main Street Center, in a press release. “These eight outstanding semifinalists have demonstrated the impressive economic and community growth that is possible when commercial districts harness the power of the Main Street Approach. They’re a model for Main Street programs across the country working to achieve comprehensive, preservation-based revitalization.”
Evanston is a certified community of Wyoming Main Street, which is a program of the Wyoming Business Council. Wyoming Main Street reported 74 net new businesses, $15 million in private funds invested and 168.5 net new jobs among 17 aspiring, affiliate and certified Main Street communities in 2018.
“We’re very proud,” said Jane Law, the manager of Evanston Main Street. “It’s a huge honor. The GAMSA application process is quite extensive. This community and all the citizens, volunteers and supporters who have been involved over so many years and accomplished so much deserve this honor and recognition.”
If ever there was a community that embodied the story of The Little Engine that Could – a tiny train engine that takes a slow-and-steady approach to climbing a mountain – it’s Evanston. The city is even known for its rich railroad history.
While some communities experience a sudden and noticeable revival in their downtowns, often spurred by some small upgrade or a single investment, the City of Evanston has made incremental improvements that have built upon themselves over the last several decades; a line of streetlights here, a park bench there.
"A 12-year old boy once commented that he felt rich when he saw the new street poles and signs because they were so beautiful," Law said. "People love the painted crosswalks, which were mostly painted by kids. Residents appreciated the addition of an outdoor sound system, and our fall decorations always receive a wonderful response."
Not every project has been small, however. Over the last 12 to 14 years, Law said the city’s focus has been on rehabilitating the Strand Theatre and Hotel Evanston, both larger, longer-term projects Law said she is proud to have played a part in.
"After a fire in 2007 and taking ownership of the property in 2008, we have spent close to 12 years rehabilitating The Strand and building it back up literally out of the ashes into a great theater,” she said. “The URA's involvement in that project was rather controversial. One local businessman was totally against it at first. But he asked for a tour when it reopened, and he said to me then, ‘you know I was against this project, but I am so glad you moved forward with it. It’s awesome, and a great addition to our downtown. Thank you.’ That was one of the nicest things anyone said about it.”
The Strand project received a Community Development Block Grant in 2010 and a Community Facilities grant from the Business Council in 2013.
The Roundhouse was originally built in 1912-1914 and partly refurbished into a public facility in 2009. It was completed in 2016, and now stands as an impressive and useful public space for weddings, public events and celebrations like the Celtic Festival; and it lures railroad enthusiasts from across the nation.
The Roundhouse project received Business Council grants in 2007 and 2016.
The Business Council has been involved in funding a handful of other important projects in Evanston as well, including the Bear River rehabilitation, Bear Meadows Park, the Everett Graphics building in the business park, a medical spec building, the Commerce Drive expansion and a rail property project in 2013.
"Evanston is a great example of how a community with an organized vision and great leadership can leverage grants and funding from several sources to make projects – both big and small – happen,” said Kayla Kler, Wyoming Main Street project manager.
The big projects are fun and wonderful to watch come together, added Julie O’Connell, the board chair for the Urban Renewal Agency of Evanston. But the volunteers have soft spots in their hearts for the smaller projects, like installing the outdoor speakers along Main Street, commissioning a large mural downtown and organizing live music events on Thursday nights.
“Those are the types of projects that our small town can really own,” she said. “We get the idea, scrounge up a little funding, and see the results happen very quickly. And people really seem to love those smaller enhancements.”
Evanston Mayor Kent Willimas said he was thrilled to learn that Evanston was again included in the list of semifinalists for the GAMSA award, and he commended Law and all the people who worked hart to make it happen.
"The downtown merchants themselves are the real heroes of all this, though," he added. "Without their willingness to take the risk to open a business and try new things our downtown, it wouldn't matter what anybody else did."
Law has been a driving force in downtown Evanston for more than a decade and has seen many projects through to completion. Still, she credits much of the town’s success to work done before she arrived.
“To be honest, our downtown streetscape has been nice for years and years,” Law said. “I had it easier than some in other communities. We already had so many things in place, and the town was already working on preservation and revitalization, thanks to my predecessor, Jim Davis, so I didn’t have to have to start from scratch there.”
Evanston’s efforts, both big and small, have created a town so full of character and personality that it draws visitors from around the region, especially those interested in the railroad or Lincoln Highway history, and even peace-seeking visitors from bustling Salt Lake City 80 miles away.
“Downtown is always a work in progress,” Law said. “This community is awesome, and I truly believe it is a Great American Main Street.”
The GAMSA winners will be announced on May 18 at the Main Street Now Conference in Dallas.