Utica awarded $1.2 million grant for outdoor shopping plaza

Mayor hopes to have retail stalls open in 2023

The Batavia Boardwalk Shops officially opened for the season on Friday, May 20, 2022. All businesses are open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through December 18, 2022.

Utica has been awarded more than $1.2 million to build an outdoor retail plaza on a vacant Mill Street lot.

The village was notified Monday that it was approved for a Rebuild Illinois Downtowns and Main Streets capital grant of $1,249,969. The funds, coupled with a village match of $250,000, will be used to build a plaza (working title: the Shoppes at Mill Street Market) of portable retail stalls at the northwest edge of downtown.

Mayor David Stewart said he was extremely pleased to get the grant, but the belated announcement — Springfield had at one point pledged to award funds in April — all but dashes any hope of starting the project, much less finishing it, in 2022.

“I’m unsure exactly when the construction will begin,” Stewart said. “The hope will be to get businesses in there some time next year.

“I can’t wait to get this up and running.”

The parcel was leveled by the 2004 tornado and would-be developers were scared off by flood-prone Clark’s Run to the north. A few brick-and-mortar proposals never came to fruition.

The village’s response was to propose seasonal, portable retail stalls that could be whisked away in case of flooding. The village proposes to own the portable structures and lease them to vendors from May to December. The project is modeled after outdoor retail plazas in Batavia and in Muskegon, Michigan.

Stewart said he was grateful to North Central Illinois Council of Governments for assembling the grant application and to village business owners who submitted written support for the project.

There may be some tenants, as well. One of the business owners to express preliminary interest was Sara Renner, owner of The SUD Co., a women’s and children’s apparel business. At the time of the grant application, Renner said she was looking to expand her business but needs flexible hours and isn’t quite ready for a brick-and-mortar investment, so renting a portable retail stall is an attractive option.

“I think this would be ideal,” Renner stated previously, “and I live here in Utica so the location would be phenomenal.”

Details will be solidified as the 2023 construction season draws closer, but the preliminary sketches showed a dozen portable stalls, each 12 feet square with a 4-foot porch, with room to add more stalls if outdoor shopping catches on.

Though the portability of the stalls is key, the design includes a faux stone retaining wall to protect the plaza in case of a flash flood at Clark’s Run.

Village officials have also discussed extending the beautification of Mill Street — adding more crisscrossing light strands, for example — a block north to include the outdoor plaza and the old fire station across the street.

“We’re excited to bring grant funds back home to Utica,” Village Engineer Kevin Heitz said. “As far as the designs, I look forward to going over them this winter and making sure we’re ready for spring construction.

“It will be a great project for the whole area.”