ROCK FALLS – The streets of downtown Rock Falls will be full of families and children enjoying the Hometown Holidays festivities this weekend.
It’s a sight city leaders and economic development officials hope to see more often after the holiday lights come down.
There are some reasons to hope for better days for the downtown district. The First Avenue Bridge has been reconstructed, and plans are moving along for riverfront development.
But the disruption of the bridge work took its toll on a couple of businesses, and progress along the riverfront will take time.
Two local businesses have closed in the past month. Zuppa’s Deli, which opened in April 2011, closed Oct. 13. Innovations 4 You, which sold women’s clothes, jewelry and other accessories, closed Nov. 10.
Sandy Henrekin, director of the Rock Falls Community Development Corp., said the closures may have been a result of bridge project.
“It’s a tough time right now, I think our downtown has suffered a little bit of late,” Henrekin said. “Downtown merchants, like other communities, suffered from the down economy. As things started to pick up, our merchants were faced with long periods of restricted access and congested traffic from bridge reconstruction.”
“While I’m thrilled with the bridge reconstruction, I knew it was going to be an inconvenience,” she said. “They would absolutely say it had an effect on business.”
By the end of the year, Henrekin said, residents should be able to enjoy the view in the riverfront area near the bridge. The site will be grated again and construction piles will be gone. The area will be seeded in the spring, so residents will be able to see grass growing.
The site also will be open to walkers and strollers, she added.
Henrekin said the location of the city’s downtown is one of its greatest assets.
“Because we are right on (state) Route 40, I think that’s really going to help riverfront development,” she said. “The bridge is gorgeous, most of the construction equipment is gone. Now you are starting to see our riverfront come back to life.”
Henrekin is working to organize a group that will focus on programs and events that will bring traffic to the area. That’s the key to success, she said.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity that we have right now – work on making this a destination,” she said.
Getting people to the riverfront will spill over to the downtown, Henrekin said.
“You can put up a new facade on a building, [but] unless you’ve got ease of access and a reason to stop, our job is to work to change that,” she said.
In the past, Rock Falls Alderman Daehle Reitzel has advocated creating a downtown business owners association.
Getting invested parties to work together to benefit the area “can’t be anything but good,” Henrekin said. She said business owners have a vested interest in getting together.
“If that is a successful strategy, I would be all for it,” she said.
Mayor David Blanton said the public want to see development.
“I think the main thing that’s going to happen that will change everything is when public space is available,” he said. “When we first started the project, we had a lot of naysayers. I have not talked to anyone since we got the road (a through Second Street) put in that doesn’t have praise for it.
“When people see it and they can touch it and use it, they get excited. I think that’s what we need now.”
Blanton said he is looking forward to the spring, when the area will be open to the public. He said the city continues to work toward having an amphitheater and picnic area there.
Until then, Blanton planned on basking in the holiday spirit by taking part in the festive tree lighting.
“The first year we did that, everybody thought we were crazy,” he said. “Since we started doing that, see all those people by the Christmas tree, it’s breathtaking.”