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At a recent meeting of the Downtown Vandalia Partnership meeting, it was asked, “Does anyone know how we got here?”
Vandalia Mayor Ricky Gottman has his ideas. And it may be a bit different that what one would think.
Decades ago, Vandalia, like many other small towns, was booming. Shops were located in nearly all storefronts and business was booming. Then, something happened.
Gottman said the biggest thing against businesses in the town isn’t Wal-Mart or foreclosures, or even foot traffic.
“The biggest thing against us is that there are no incentives in Illinois for business. New businesses are sprouting all around the St. Louis metro area, but elsewhere in Illinois – very little,” Gottman says.
Many put the blame on the so-called “Wal-Mart effect” – the premise that Wal-Mart drove out many of the mom and pop shops in small-town America. However Gottman says that just wasn’t the case here.
“After Wal-Mart built here, development began on the west interchange. I was working with development of that property and worked hard to get it for Wal-Mart. The Illinois Department of Transportation required us to have a connecting road to the area, as officials did not want a “dead end” off of the exchange. And, to be honest, Wal-Mart paid for the road, an extension off of Randolph Street,” Gottman explained.
As the decline in local business started around the time of the Wal-Mart explosion, Gottman says that aging business owners, with no one to take over the businesses, is one of the largest contributors to business decline at that time.
However, Gottman says that aspect is beginning to have a reversal, at least locally.
“More young people have moved into town and we are fortunate to have them. Look at downtown now – most are younger, opening up new businesses are spurring the revitalization. The city has a Retail Strategy Plan in place, and we are moving towards it,” the mayor said.
“Charters Patio is a huge draw, and there were no city dollars that went into the project, with the exception of the sidewalk,” he explained.
“One year I wanted to see if I could do it, and I bought all of my Christmas presents in Vandalia, even those for my wife,” he chuckled.
He says Vandalia is home to the oldest standing state capitol building in the state, and hopes that businesses will play off of that, bringing more specialty businesses to the area.
“Those are the type which will be successful – those who do not try to compete with the big box stores.”
In connection with the renewed interest in downtown, Gottman encouraged those with the space to develop “lofts,” which would probably attract more young artist and entrepreneurs to the area. “Many young people want lofts, and that’s an opportunity,” he said.
“I would encourage people to seek out and see what Vandalia has to offer. If people don’t patronize our businesses, they won’t stay. We have some very good people sitting on various committees and want to see the town grow.”
Gottman also praises the Creating Economic Opportunities (CEO) program, which teaches high school students the ins and outs of business, and gives them a heads up in being successful.
Gottman also praised the hospital, prison and school system as being main employers and keeping some in town, as well as Kaskaskia College, being a major piece of the puzzle in providing higher education.
“Many say there is nothing to do in town,” he said. “However some of the attractions we have are the YMCA, bowling alley, new theatre, the city’s park system, among others.”
“Vandalia truly is reinventing itself, and should have a bright future,” he said.