Sandra Leidner reminded a large crowd on Monday afternoon that when she ran for mayor 13 years ago, she had as one of her goals promoting Vandalia’s rich history. And it is that history, she said, that allowed Vandalia to receive federal funding for the project that has improved the city’s downtown business district.
Leidner was one of the speakers as the city celebrated the completion of the downtown enhancement project. That project was essentially completed at the beginning of April.
Mayor Rick Gottman told the crowd gathered at Vandalia’s Madonna of the Trail statue that the project cost about $4.3 million, with the federal government contributing about $1.25 million.
The federal Transportation Equity Act-21 grant funds paid for 80 percent of the streetscape improvements, which include new sidewalks, curbs and gutters, period street lights and the relocation of overhead utility lines underground on Gallatin Street from Kennedy Boulevard to Seventh Street.
The Illinois Department of Transportation provided funds for a new road surface, and the city paid for improvements to aging water, sewer and storm sewer lines in the downtown business district.
“The grant (application) was filed due to numerous water breaks and leaks in the infrastructure in the downtown area,” Leidner said.
“This necessitated the jackhammering of concrete surfaces and repair work,” she said, explaining that the aging underground lines sometimes created “sink holes big enough to drop a Volkswagen Bug into, which is exactly what happened one Sunday afternoon.
“That prompted me to start looking at finances for street and infrastructure repairs, realizing that the cost was going to be significant.”
Leidner said as she began looking for grants to make the improvements, she ran across the TEA-21 program and realized that the city could use its history to get federal aid.
“This street is significant to the history of our nation, it’s significant to the history of Illinois, and this street is significant to the commerce of Vandalia,” she said, noting that it was Vandalia’s designation as the terminus of the National Road in the 1800s which was the main reason the city was able to procure the federal funds.
Leidner gave a brief history of the National Road, which was first envisioned by George Washington and became this nation’s first interstate highway.
“Its construction created a thriving artery for commerce migration from the east to the west,” she said.
Because of that history, Leidner said in talking about Gallatin Street, “It is our responsibility to keep it, to cherish it and to preserve its history for all time.”
Leidner praised Gottman, the city’s downtown enhancement committee, Vandalia Main Street and others who saw the project through to completion.
Gottman, in turn, praised Leidner. “Sandra had a vision and a mission, and the mission has now come to fruition.”
The mayor said city officials initially looked at making infrastructure improvements as part of the project, “but it came to the point that it was going to be cost-prohibitive.”
But, he said, “As we tore into it, it was seen that we needed to go ahead and do some of the infrastructure work.”
Gottman also praised U.S. Congressman John Shimkus (R-Ill., 19th District), who was represented at Monday’s ceremony by Mike Hall of Vandalia. Shimkus, Gottman said, “was a driver behind the force under Mrs. Leidner.”
Gottman praised the downtown business owners for their patience and perseverance during the project.
“Many days, they had no one walk into their stores, especially during the last phase,” he said. “But they held strong.
“I thank them for all of the hard work and dedication that they put into the downtown area as business owners and leaders of our community,” Gottman said.
The mayor also acknowledged those individuals who served on the downtown enhancement advisory committee since he formed the group in 2003 – Jean Stombaugh, Rita Mae Allen, Bob Anderson, Larry Bennett, Donelle Conaway, Barbie Elliott, Art Martin, Dana Whiteman and Pam Yates – HMG Engineers, Hank’s Excavating and the individuals who have purchased memorial benches.
The city sold more than 30 of those benches, and Gottman said, “that shows the commitment” of city residents to improving the town. “They want to see Vandalia continue to grow and to keep a downtown.”
At Monday’s city council meeting, Gottman, and Alderman Bret Brosman, praised city workers for participating in the downtown work as needed.
Now that the project is complete, he said, it’s up to local residents to help keep the downtown business viable by shopping in the local stores as much as possible.
Whiteman, Vandalia Main Street executive director, also praised those seeing the project through to completion.
“The vision of mayors Leidner and Gottman, all of those who served on the city council and the downtown advisory committee brought this project to a successful completion. Even through countless project reworkings and several unsuccessful bid lettings, the commitment of the city never faltered,” she said.
“The real stars of the downtown project, however, I believe, are the downtown business owners. Both retail and service businesses were greatly affected by road closures during the construction process,” Whiteman said.
“These small businesses exhibited patience and endurance throughout the project, even though some of them saw their sales decrease more than 50 percent, and some days, open their doors and then close them again without having a customer walk through.
“They really should be commended for what they went through and actually took with grace,” she said.
“Their commitment to our downtown business district and to our community as a whole should really be commended,” Whiteman said. “The downtown is the heart of our community, and the businesses are the heartbeat.
“They will soon reap the rewards of the new streetscape,” she said.
At Monday night’s council meeting, Main Street board member Jerry Swarm told aldermen that three business owners had expressed interest in locating in the downtown business district.
Stombaugh, who was the secretary of the downtown advisory committee, emceed Monday’s ceremony.
“It is with pride that we see the fruition of this project. The impact on the downtown businesses has been great, and we are certainly appreciative of the considerations that the businesses had in trying to make arrangements for people to get into their buildings and not disrupt their business,” Stombaugh said.