‘It just seems to be where things happen,’ La Salle’s focus on downtown paying dividends

City estimates about 75% of redevelopment has taken place in downtown over the past decade

It’s no secret for those wanting to shop, eat and explore La Salle, the downtown area is the place to visit, but this hasn’t come by accident.

Economic Development Director Leah Inman said that city-run opportunities, such as facade grants and the Redevelopment Incentive Program have helped lead to the constant shaping of the downtown area.

“I think that’s just where people are most interested in starting a business,” Inman said. “With the facade grants, we’re trying to make it known that it’s also for businesses on the north end and everybody, but I think a lot of them are just focussing on downtown because a lot of those buildings need the most work.”

The facade grants focus on primarily exterior improvements to business owner’s buildings and cover some of the costs with an investment from the city of La Salle.

These grants have been taken advantage of by buildings and business owners since they began in 2000. The city has approved more than $1.1 million in facade funds for development since 2011 and to this date has distributed around $960,000 over this time.

Since 2011 it is estimated about $5 million in total business construction and redevelopment has been spent throughout the city. Inman estimates about 75% of this construction has taken place in the downtown area.

“It just seems to be where things happen,” Inman said. “We’re thrilled about that because it really makes the downtown and revitalizes it. It’s neat to see the businesses try and get back to the old feel of the building and not just slap some paint on it to make it look nice. They are trying to make it look historic.”

While these grants don’t have strict facade and zoning restrictions, the spirit most have continued with includes maintaining the historic aspect the downtown portrays.

For Inman, the growth downtown has been phenomenal as she credited many early developers that helped plant the seed 15 or 20 years ago that have led to the boom in the last 10 years or so.

“A few core developers and a couple core businesses were willing to take that risk after the mall opened and a lot of things disappeared from downtown La Salle,” Inman said. “Now I think a lot of things are leaving the mall and coming back down here.”

While the early developers planted the seed, Iman believes there is now a younger group of entrepreneurs also taking advantage of the opportunity and continue to invest in their community.

These business owners have embraced the “Believe in La Salle” mantra that continues to garner a community of supporters that want to see the city and the storefronts become stronger together.

“I really think it kind of gave La Salle a little personality,” Inman said. “Each community around here has its own personality and I really think La Salle’s was kind of the underdog for awhile.”

The business owners themselves show support to each other by pointing visitors toward other shops and restaurants in the community, according to Inman. They share content on social media, shop themselves and cooperate in events to consistently promote one another.

This support is echoed by the city of La Salle as the council, officials and Inman want to see growth and success among their local businesses.

“I can’t imagine why somebody would not promote that they’re business-friendly,” Inman said. “That goes along with getting building permits done quickly. We don’t want to be the reason that somebody can’t fulfill their dreams or can’t fulfill their obligation to a contractor.”

The number of interested business owners continues to grow as interest in La Salle hasn’t slowed, she said. She also believes the increased amount of female-owned businesses in the area has helped create a strong community.

While the tax bases of some surrounding communities, such as Peru and Ottawa, may be larger with the big-box stores, Inman said the city of La Salle has entrepreneurs that want to get started and grow.

“People know that this is a great place to start something,” Inman said. “We had a couple vendors that started the farmer’s market and now they have storefronts. There’s three businesses in town that just opened a second location, one in Peoria and a couple in Pontiac. It’s great to see that this is kind of a stepping stone for them.”

La Salle has installed beautification projects downtown to increase the quality of life, such as outdoor music, benches, wayfinding signs and nearly 200 concrete planters located throughout the city.

The city also has hosted an increasing number of public events in the downtown. This puts the downtown businesses in front of many out of town visitors that come to the city for live music, festivals and other activities.

“It’s a great backdrop,” Inman said. “When you get the lights and you get the big buildings in the background and the sun going down by the (Illinois and Michigan) Canal it’s a perfect backdrop. Why wouldn’t we want to capitalize and show all of that off.”

The city has about 10 buildings it is looking to lease to interested entrepreneurs. Inman said she has noticed a trend where business owners are looking to buy buildings instead of leasing buildings as the city’s inventory in these types of projects are limited.

While limited, the city has shown it is open to discussions with interested parties on redevelopment agreements for the properties under its control.

“I just don’t want to see empty storefronts,” Inman said. “I want to see all the storefronts getting fixed up. If we get the buildings fixed up then that’s half the battle and then you want to fill it with something that’s going to hopefully fulfill someone’s dream.”

Downtown La Salle offers entrepreneurs a historic surrounding with large numbers of foot traffic that has been a focus of those within the city.

While businesses appear all through the city, downtown has continually received a lot of interest for aspiring business owners and developers that wish to succeed in the Illinois Valley.

Jayce Eustice

Covering local government, breaking news and whatever is thrown at me for the La Salle News Tribune