Residents asked for input for downtown plan

Staff Report

    The city will host a public kick-off event for the development of a Wilmington Downtown Plan on Wednesday, March 22, beginning at 6 p.m., at city hall. The downtown plan will outline the community’s vision for the future of the downtown as well as the policies and strategies that will allow it to achieve that vision.
    The city was awarded a Local Technical Assistance Program grant from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, to conduct a study of the Route 53 commercial corridor and how the proposed Illiana Tollway would affect it. When the Illiana project was shelved, CMAP agreed to allow the city to use the funds to study its downtown district and create a plan for its future. CMAP will provide staff assistance to complete the plan, and information about the programs that can help the city implement it.
    The study area extends well beyond what most residents consider the city’s downtown —from Van Buren Street to Lafayette Street between Forked Creek and the Kankakee River, and from the Union Pacific Railroad tracks to Wabash Street between North Water and Joliet Street. It encompasses the island parks, the downtown, and the East Baltimore Street commercial corridor.
    The completed plan will outline a vision for the district and provide development strategies to improve the function and character of the city’s central business district. It will address future land use priorities, economic development opportunities for key parcels, transportation and pedestrian access, and the streetscape along Baltimore and Water streets.
    Input from residents, business owners, property owners and other community stakeholders is key to development of the plan.
    The project started with the formation of a steering committee, which has met just a couple of times so far. The committee includes representation from the fire and library districts, the business community and the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
    “It’s just getting started, literally. We’re trying to form a steering committee that’s going to help oversee what’s going on and be somewhat of a clearing house for what’s being done,” explained interim city administrator Frank Koehler. He’s worked with CMAP in the past, and said the agency will bring some best practices and examples of what other communities have done to the table, and look at things that the locals may not otherwise have taken into consideration, he added.
    “[We can] see what other towns have done, whether it’s LeClaire, Iowa, that’s the home of the American Pickers, right along the Mississippi River, they’ve done a great job with their waterfront. And LaCrosse, Wisconsin, has a great downtown plan. We can pull examples from Homewood, and LaGrange, and what’s going on in Lockport and other towns, and what they’re doing to revitalize their downtowns,” Koehler said.
    Koehler is a fan of Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based non-profit organization that focuses on walkability, liveability and getting downtowns back to their roots. Koehler hopes to bring Chuck Marohn, the architect  behind the organization, into the conversation to help bring focus on some downtown opportunities.
    Koehler envisions a central business district that puts a variety of goods and services within walking distance of residences, something that’s missing in Wilmington right now.
    “If you get more people living there, parking lots aren’t as critical then, because you look at walkability, liveability. Can we make it more bicycle friendly down there? Let’s get some bike racks down there, because there really isn’t that kind of stuff down there.
    “And then the opportunity that presents, ultimately, with the north and south islands and how they can really become more of an attraction than they are right now, and what doors that might open up for us for funding,” he continued.
    The planning process consists of five phases to be completed over 12 months. The first and second phases include extensive public outreach to ensure that a broad spectrum of the community is engaged in the project.
    In the third phase, existing conditions, past plans, studies and other data will be thoroughly analyzed before the community’s shared vision for the downtown is developed.
    “We don’t  want our thoughts to direct our work, [we’ll] let our work come up with the game plan, identify what the strengths are and how we can play those up. We’ll see where it takes us,” Koehler said.
    The plan is developed in the fourth phase, and the process ends with public review and City Council adoption.
    The committee’s focus will be much different than that of the Downtown Revitalization Committee of the mid- to early-1990s, and will go way beyond the DRC’s definition of revitalization.
    “You have to. Simply go beyond Water Street and Bridge Street as well, and what are the elements that will make it a much more exciting and much more invigorating type of a downtown,” Koehler commented. “That’s what I’m going to try to do, for however long I’m here; get people to think about downtown Wilmington.”
    Koehler can be contacted at city hall, 815-476-2175 ext. 232, or via email at for more information
    In addition to attending the kick-off event, or for those who will miss it, the steering committee is asking residents to participate in a community survey, which has been posted online at