Editorial— S.O.S.: Save Our Strip (And How We Got in This Terrible Mess)

On the heels of the Illinois Main Street / Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency joint state c
Chris Wissmann

On the heels of the Illinois Main Street / Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency joint state conference coming to the city from June 23 to June 25 (see Music Notes), the city of Carbondale continues the process of downtown revitalization with a workshop Wednesday, June 24 at 6 p.m. in the Carbondale Civic Center. The goal is for the public to go over the Downtown Advisory Committee’s recommendations with Houseal Lavigne Associates, which the city hired to create a master-development plan for the downtown.

A little historical perspective is in order, however.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Strip was a thriving entertainment district. But students went there, drank beer, and listened to rock and or roll. Local religious conservatives couldn’t abide such sinful behavior, especially after it landed SIU on Playboy’s list of the nation’s top party schools.

At the urging of the university, the city clamped down hard. The bar-entry age rose to twenty-one. City government ended the popular Halloween street fair in jackboot fashion, provoking riots. Enrollment began falling like a rock— I would argue in large part due to the aforementioned measures, a contention with which I detect widespread agreement at all levels of the city government and SIU administration— and the Strip slowly lost its economic and cultural luster.

Now everyone is scrambling to repair the damage before it reaches a point of no return. But it’s worth noting that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

During its heyday, the Strip mostly served students, with the greatest amount of activity taking place at nightclubs. Critics believed that if the Strip diversified, then it would become even more prosperous (and bring a more morally desirable form of economic activity with it). To force the issue, the city limited liquor licenses in the downtown— that reduced student bar traffic, resulting in smaller, easier-to-control afterhours crowds. But, the thinking also went, as bars closed, in their place shops and restaurants would open and cater to families with children.

The city constructed the Mill Street Underpass in part to direct motor traffic past the downtown, where it was hoped SIU employees would stop to shop or get dinner on their ways home.

But retail establishments (facing subsidized competition from the University Mall) and restaurants didn’t open in numbers that served anywhere near those generated by now-shuttered bars like the American Tap, Rompers, or Frankie’s. And the underpass dissected the Strip, increasing downtown automobile traffic intent on quickly getting home, not stopping and spending money. At the same time, the underpass irreparably disrupted the once almost-continuous pedestrian-safe walk from Grand Avenue to Route 13, encouraging students to seek meals and entertainment elsewhere in the city. And of course, there were ever-fewer student customers for the Strip’s businesses to serve.

But certainly hope remains alive. Major developments downtown— including the Evolve student-housing complex and a Hilton Home2 Suites hotel— have great potential to lead a positive transformation.

And that won’t happen without help— a Tax Increment Finance district was critical to landing the Evolve deal, and the prospect of TIF incentives probably sealed the Hilton project, too. The city must remain proactive to make sure that recent developments become net gains and then parlay them into future successes.

 

But at the same time, everyone involved needs to understand the character of the Strip and what makes it truly special. Those who try to change Carbondale’s downtown into something it’s not are doomed to fail, and they will take the rest of the city down with them.