A few years ago, downtown Belleville, Illinois, was notable for vacant storefronts and empty buildings, having fallen prey like many older commercial districts to tough economic times. Local leaders hit on an improbable prescription for revitalizing the DT—they started an art fair.
From its humble beginnings in 2002, the art fair quickly established itself as one of the best in the country. In 2004 it was named “Best Small Town Art Fair in America” and by 2006, it was ranked in the top 10 of all shows.
Last May about 90,000 visitors thronged downtown for the three day Art on the Square festival, which was named “Top Art Festival” in the country for the third time in four years. Event planners from as far away as Disney World and Sausalito, California, have been known to visit the all-volunteer effort to see how they mange to pull it off.
The success of the art fair seems to have turned Belleville into a city of festivals and annual events. On any given week, you might stumble upon a Downtown Diva Night, a Downtown Chili Cook-off, Downtown Classic Car Show, Oktoberfest, Law Day Run, Gingerbread Walk/Run, etc.
A “Paint the Town” event, sponsored by syndicated radio host Delilah and Big Shoes Productions, mobilized more than 1,000 volunteers from civic groups, churches schools and other organizations for a two day marathon in which 60 buildings were painted, using an estimated 14,000 gallons of paint donated by area businesses.
The city undertook a $7 million face lift known as the Downtown Streetscape Project to widen sidewalks, plant trees, put in new light polls, decorative banners and hanging plants, some new park benches, bike racks and new signs. Downtown business owners have taken to rehabbing their storefronts.
All of this has brought new nightlife to the downtown. Now, instead of empty streets and darkened buildings, downtown Belleville at night is a well lit public space where people come together to have dinner, shop or walk around.
Complementing the city’s downtown revitalization projects is a “Buy Belleville First” Campaign designed to increase local sales receipts and tax revenues. For the past three years, groups of volunteers have hand delivered letters to about 17,000 households, describing how the city’s budget works and how reliant it is on local sales tax.
Participating local merchants offer discounts and special offers to shoppers carrying a Buy Belleville First Card. The Belleville Main Street organization coordinates the program and prints up the cards. The city touts the program to residents and visitors alike.
The campaign captured the attention of CNN, which did a holiday season shopping story about Belleville and its buy local program in 2009. That same year sales tax revenue in November and December were up by 45 percent over the year before, despite a worsening economy.
Other cities in the region have begun to copy the “buy local” campaign. Local residents now think twice about where they buy gas or a sack of groceries, and more often than not, they think Belleville. They also think about where some of the money goes, to the city to support services such as police and fire.
Belleville embodies a kind of collaborative community spirit you can find in towns and cities of all sizes throughout the country, despite the tough economic times and general feeling of distrust for institutions. It was named an All-America City in June, 2011. You can view a stream of their presentation to the AAC jury by linking here.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.