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What if you could rebuild from scratch?

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From disaster comes opportunity in renewal.

That means the city of Prophetstown is facing a huge opportunity. But it’s going to be a big job.

The devastating fire that destroyed eight downtown buildings July 15 has left a hole in the heart of the city.

So citizens must be heartened to see community leaders responding quickly to develop a plan for recovery.

During a City Council meeting Tuesday, barely 2 weeks after the fire, city leaders were told that fast action is important.

“The key is to move quickly,” said Norman Walzer, a senior research scholar with the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University. “A year or 2 from now, the momentum may have been lost.”

Job No. 1 is to clear out the debris left behind by the fire. The council will open bids tonight for that work.

Also high on the must-do list is an assessment of which owners plan to rebuild their downtown businesses. To ensure uniform redevelopment, city officials will have to decide their role in creating a new downtown – especially in plans for properties where owners don’t intend to rebuild.

And then there are matters of funding – private and public – to finance the revival of the business district. Some owners of businesses that were not directly affected by the fire might also want to take the opportunity to update their properties.

All of that will take time, but it will be important that citizens hear and see the signs of steady progress during the planning and rebuilding.

What is a reasonable timetable? Mayor Steve Swanson and Councilman Richard Buell said Tuesday night that they hoped the work could be completed in 3 to 4 years, but too many unanswered questions now make any projected ribbon-cutting date premature.

A 2011 study conducted by NIU found that most (60 percent) of the city’s merchants were optimistic about the long-term viability of their businesses, and at least half thought the city’s future was “positive but with a stable population.”

While the fire might be viewed as a setback for the community, the city is more likely to benefit by citizens approaching their disaster as an opportunity to help Prophetstown to strive for a potential that might not have been realized had a rebuilding – a re-imagining – not been necessary.

The slate, to some degree, is clean. What kind of downtown would you build if you could start from scratch?

We look forward to finding out what the good folks in Prophetstown have in mind.

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