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Local

The art of downtown revitalization in Mount Morris

Artist's vision now includes dream team of volunteers

MOUNT MORRIS – A vision for the downtown to become an arts destination point came into focus during a 3-day conference that wrapped up Saturday at Pinecrest Grove Community Center.

The third session drew about 80 people who participated in smaller action planning sessions. Each group made presentations that included timelines, and who would be accountable for carrying out the plans.

The vision of the arts fueling downtown revitalization and growth belongs to a former Mount Morris resident.

Artist Andria Thorngren Burchett of Geneva has been a longtime believer in the potential of the Mount Morris College campus. The buildings would become a rural artists retreat with studios, galleries, renowned guest instructors, and space for the visual and performing arts. A flourishing arts community would need the support of new businesses, from restaurants and brew pubs to bed and breakfasts and gift shops.

Andria visits her hometown often, to see her 94-year-old father, and the vision continues to grow.

“She’s had this dream for 10 years now, that the old campus can be revitalized as an arts center,” husband Steve Burchett said. “She believes this can be the core for driving economic development.”

Andria has made a believer of the village’s Economic Development Group, and she has been working closely with City Clerk Paula Diehl to make the vision a reality. The village had been planning the conference since November.

“This was an ambitious undertaking because this project was launched with just volunteers,” said Rob Urish, chairman of the Economic Development Group. “We tried to put together diverse skill sets, and we’ve assembled a group of quality people.”

The serendipitous gathering of volunteer talent almost seems to have given the village’s planned marriage of the arts and business a stamp of approval. It all started with one of Andria’s art students at Beech Tree Studio in Geneva.

Larry Maholland, a longtime city administrator in St. Charles, was taking pencil courses at the studio. He retired from city government in 2005, and is now a management consultant with Sikich.

“Andie told me about about her vision, and how she was thinking of doing the meetings,” Maholland said. “I said I’d help if she needed someone because it would get me back into what I love doing.”

Maholland, who had never even been to Mount Morris prior to the meetings, used his connections to bring in more city planning brainpower. Former city managers and administrators from suburbia, including Arlington Heights and Elgin, and planners from academia have volunteered their services.

Gary Ernst, retired after a quarter-century on the faculty at North Central College, is an emeritus professor of international business and marketing. He has no ties to Mount Morris, but made the trip from Naperville all 3 days of the conference.

The overwhelming volunteer response, just to the conference, has already saved the village tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees. The movement’s leaders say there could be other dividends to be reaped by utilizing volunteers.

“Sometimes money and being on the clock can get in the way of the free flow of ideas,” Maholland said.

“The energy in the room and level of involvement was exciting,” Diehl said. “I think having a mix of people within and outside the community allows us to look at things with new eyes.”

The most immediate goal from the planning session is to set up the Encore Forward committee that will provide leadership and oversight to the efforts of the various groups.

ACTION PLANNING SUMMARY

A recap of work done in action planning subgroups, which was presented during the third and final day of the downtown revitalization conference on Saturday in Mount Morris.

• Encore Forward

An Encore Forward steering committee will be formed to provide oversight and be "guardians of the mission". The committee will identify resources, form subgroups, and set up the overall structure, which will be presented to the village's Economic Development Group.

• Beautification

The main objective is to get everyone involved in beautification efforts. A community plan for businesses and residential areas will be drawn up and it will be brought to the public.

• Communications

Internal and external communications will be maximized to develop and support the revitalization plans. Logos, buttons, and social media will be used. A "Reinvent Mount Morris" brand could become the center of marketing efforts.

• Artists 

The artists group stresses the link between cultural and economic development of the region. The Mount Morris College campus can serve as an arts center, attracting artists and special events. The group will work on defining the arts center's needs, and how the buildings could accommodate those requirements.

• Business district

This group's focus is on creating a robust business district to support the arts activities. A goal would be to get four or five new businesses started in the next 5 years, improve resources for startups and help existing businesses in need of more suitable spaces.

• Infrastructure

Focus on buildings and city services – water, sewer, roads, etc. Assess and evaluate properties, and identify the future availability of buildings and land.

• Tourism

Meet with the current tourism organization – its next meeting is April 19. Discuss promotions and possible funding sources for expanded efforts.

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