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Town plotting rebuilding course

'The key is to move quickly,' NIU researcher says

The community prayer service lined up the street July 17 in front of the businesses that burned. Prophetstown is exploring ways to secure funds necessary to rebuild a large section of its downtown.
The community prayer service lined up the street July 17 in front of the businesses that burned. Prophetstown is exploring ways to secure funds necessary to rebuild a large section of its downtown.

PROPHETSTOWN – Prophetstown is exploring ways to secure funds necessary to rebuild a large section of its downtown.

Mayor Steve Swanson and the City Council met Tuesday to discuss the rebuilding process with representatives from Northern Illinois University's Center for Governmental Studies and other economic development agencies.

Eight buildings along Washington Street in downtown Prophetstown were destroyed during a July 15 fire that saw fire departments from nearly 30 surrounding municipalities respond. More than a half dozen residents also were displaced as a result of the fire, which was started when, police say, 16- and 12-year-old boys set a recycling bin on fire.

The brothers are charged with residential arson, arson and criminal damage to property in excess of $100,000, all felonies.

One of the biggest issues raised during the meeting was finding funds and grants that might help the town to rebuild. Those funds could be used as incentives for the current building owners or interested developers, in addition to rebuilding costs.

Betty Steinert, administrator of the Whiteside County Enterprize Zone and Economic Development Department, said the sales tax exemption, which would apply to downtown Prophetstown as an enterprise zone, can play a big role for building owners who choose to rebuild.

The sales tax exemption would apply for purchasing building materials, Steinert said, and could prove to be a "great savings" when it will likely cost more than $200,000 to rebuild each building.

"They can spend that money somewhere else [to help the business]," she said. "Or, in the end, that money they would have spent can help hire that new employee that they need for the next couple of years."

Norman Walzer, senior research scholar at NIU, said a community fund, which city representatives said had been previously established, could be used in addition to grants.

But among the first things the city needs to do, after the rubble is removed, Walzer said, is determine who wants to rebuild and what economic aspects are important for the town.

"The key is to move quickly," Walzer said. "A year or 2 from now, the momentum may have been lost."

In a 2011 study conducted by Walzer and two others, 60 percent of Prophetstown's business owners surveyed (20 respondents) said they expected their business to either have a higher volume of business and be more profitable than the previous 3 years or to have stable volume and stable profits. It's that positive outlook, Walzer said, that the town needs to capitalize on.

Of those same 20 respondents, 50 percent saw the overall future of Prophetstown as "positive but with stable population." However, 40 percent said they saw some sort of decline, in either population or the downtown economy. The remaining 10 percent said they had never thought about it.

If some of the Prophetstown building owners choose not to rebuild, Walzer said, the town needs to consider what businesses will fill a market need in town and in the area. Many businesses in small towns, he said, aren't profitable because they're modeled after the owner's interest, and not a market demand.

Swanson had previously expressed interest in the town taking over ownership of the buildings to ensure there are no gaps in the development and that a uniform plan can be carried out. He reiterated that thought process Tuesday.

"If the city doesn't own the property, I think it's going to be bad," he said.

Swanson and Ward 2 Councilman Richard Buell said they hoped the downtown rebuilding process could be completed in 3 to 4 years, but also said it was too early to make a concrete prediction. The first step, they said, was to clear out the rubble.

Bids for the cleanup will be opened at 8 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 339 Washington St.

Remaining businesses see more traffic, mixed results

PROPHETSTOWN – Business and life has gone on in downtown Prophetstown since a fire destroyed eight buildings.

Among the buildings lost were those that housed Cindy Jean's Restaurant, D's Variety and the Prophetstown Historical Society. Those losses are having an impact on downtown, and not just consumers.

Missy Taylor, 42, of Prophetstown, is the manager at Hartig Drug, 316 Washington St., which was on the edge of the fire and suffered smoke and water damage. The pharmacy is about 90 percent restocked and has started filling prescriptions again.

However, the half of the store that was next to the town's historical society has remained closed. It's the side that sold greeting cards, jewelry, purses and other higher-priced items, Taylor said.

"Obviously, we're not seeing that rush at lunch and dinner now because of Cindy Jean's," Taylor said, adding her customer count has dropped about 25 percent and revenue 30 percent to 40 percent.

Jeton Abduli, 25, of Prophetstown, owns Prophet Family Restaurant, 344 Washington St. He said he's noticed more people downtown since the fire, looking at the rubble or taking pictures.

His business, he said, actually has improved slightly since the fire. People have been driving through town, he said, to see the destruction for themselves. He said he's also had many of the insurance agents and inspectors stop by his restaurant for lunch or dinner.

He expects that trend to drop off, however, and when it does, his business may see a negative impact from the loss of D's Variety, which brought shoppers downtown, Abduli said.

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