Trolley cars roll up and down the street carrying business people and shoppers to their destinations, as a passenger train rolls into the newly constructed station with large roof overhangs and dark brick facade. East Avenue is lined with buildings full of shops, saloons, and offices. Simultaneously, laborers unload and load freight trains, moving goods to and from the warehouses and factories that line West Avenue. Local politicians and various professionals discuss the importance and implications of plans to install a new bridge over the river at Washington Street to serve growing southward expansion.
The year is 1900, and the location is Kankakee Illinois. Kankakee was previously the epicenter of business south of downtown Chicago. It was also a big tourist destination, with its lazy yet scenic meandering river. The area served as a destination for city dwellers who wished for a temporary escape while also serving as the center for commerce for the region.
Fast forward 75 years, and downtown is a ghost of itself. All of the buildings that line East Avenue have been demolished. The few remaining buildings on West Avenue sit awkwardly surrounded by open lots. The train station that served potential tourists from out of the area, and proudly displays "KANKAKEE" on the engraved sign below the steep hipped roof, sits unused for its intended purpose. The trolley tracks have been removed from Court Street and Schyler Avenue as urban expansion, or "spread" has drawn the population away from Kankakee to the north. Society has transitioned from an intimate and walk-able urban design to a car motivated suburban style of strip malls and 6 lane highways running through neighborhoods. There have been some plans throughout the years that focused around revitalization of the downtown area. An urban design and planning firm was even hired to help prepare a concept for the best investment of public and private capital to encourage stimulation and improvement for the area. The initial plan was developed in 2000, with a followup plan being released in 2008. You can see the updated plan by clicking HERE.
Though some aspects of the urban renewal plan by Lakota Group works to bring the downtown urban grander back to Kankakee's center, there hasn't been enough of an investment by local governments to see true indications of urban renewal. More recently though, an effort has been made to develop new plans which focus on a hotel and museum just outside of the focus area of the Lakota Plan near the intersection of River Street and Washington Avenue. It is our belief that the lack of full implementation of the Lakota plan, or any quality plan, isn't due to a lack of effort by the City of Kankakee, but rather because of a continue lack of interest by Kankakee County's residents about the importance of a strong central business district. Like our earlier blog entry regarding the Courthouse, the residents of Kankakee County would all benefit from a combined effort to invest in improvements which establish the County Seat as an epicenter of regional commerce. It is time for the residents of Kankakee County to demand that joint efforts be made by their governments to work together to implement plans like the one offered by Lakota Group, which will ultimately benefit all residents of the County. More importantly, residents of the county must themselves invest in the revitalization by establishing businesses and offices in this district where the socialization concepts of networking, community, and commerce have always built solid relationships and a strong economy through history. Just as it did 75 years ago, downtown Kankakee has the opportunity to drive economic development for all residents of Kankakee County, and once again encourage investment from outside entities which ultimately offer economic growth for the benefit of our residents. Lets seize the investment already made for various plans, and work together to bring them to reality. A community working together can make great things happen.