PROPHETSTOWN – For a month, there's been a pile of rubble where eight buildings once stood in downtown Prophetstown.
Soon, that rubble will start being removed. It's a process that could take about 3 weeks, Mayor Steve Swanson said, and it's just another in a long list of steps the town must take in the process of rebuilding nearly a quarter of its historic downtown.
On the morning of July 15, paper inside a recycling bin behind Cindy Jean's Restaurant, 324 Washington St., was set on fire. By 4:50 a.m., just 2 hours later, the Prophetstown water tower was down to only 10 feet of water. Fire crews, from an estimated 30 departments, started trucking in water and pumping it from the Rock River.
There were no injuries reported, but about a half dozen residents had been displaced and eight buildings, including the Prophetstown Historical Society, had what was left of them knocked down for safety reasons.
Two brothers, 16 and 12, were arrested July 16 and charged with residential arson, arson, and criminal damage to property, all felonies. The boys are due back in court for their next hearing Tuesday.
The Rev. Cheri Stewart, of Prophetstown United Methodist Church, 200 W. Second St., who led a July 17 prayer vigil, said there's a sense of forgiveness in the town.
"I don't hear this: ‘Those kids, they have to pay,'" she said. "I'm hearing the opposite. I'm hearing people hoping this can turn these kids' lives around."
That day, and the days that followed, the town started to put itself together and plan for how it would rebuild. There were prayers and fundraisers and support. The town started the healing process and now is closer to the rebuilding process.
"The grieving process is over – similar to a death, I suppose," Swanson said. "The process is over. Now it starts moving ahead. To go on."
The first physical step to rebuilding the affected portion of downtown could begin Aug. 27, when Fischer Excavating of Freeport starts to clear the rubble that's stood as a reminder of the fire. It could take 3 weeks to complete, Swanson said.
The town wants to rebuild, and it wants to do it fast, that much is clear. But it won't be a quick process, and the community leaders know that. The town may not even have enough cash upfront to pay for the rubble removal.
Fischer's bid was for $207,306.23 – but the building owners' insurance policies might not cover the cost, Swanson said. So to help, there's been a fund set up at Farmers National Bank and at IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union. The "Rebuild Prophetstown Strong" fund.
Eileen Detra, executive director of Prophetstown Main Street, said the town is moving as fast as it can and its remaining businesses, much like its residents, are moving on.
"We're here. We want people to know that there are still stores open," she said. "The rest of the stores are in business and ready to serve people, and we don't want people to forget that.”
But the question of what will replace the old businesses if some of the owners choose not to rebuild is never far from the minds of the Prophetstown residents. Everyone has his or her opinion, community leaders said, but there needs to be a consensus before planning can begin.
Detra said the town's Economic Development Committee will meet at the end of August to discuss grants or loans for the rebuilding process.
"There’s still so many things that we can't do [yet]," she said.
The town also is presented with an opportunity to set the downtown up for success in the future, said Dr. Norman Walzer, a senior research scholar at Northern Illinois University's Center for Governmental Studies.
"Think through how do you rebuild," Walzer said. "Do you really want to rebuild to July 15, 2013? Or do you really want to rebuild to a place that’s exciting in 2020?"
Getting control of the properties under a unified body, likely the town, is an important step, Walzer said. When rebuilding, the town also should consider a nontraditional, tourist- and youth-focused approach.
That approach, Walzer and NIU Reseach Associate Mim Evans said, worked in Genoa, after several downtown buildings went vacant during the recession.
"What we found, and I think it’ll be true of Prophetstown, when you do things in a traditional way, you find that everyone is doing the same thing," Evans said. "There is no competitive advantage. Businesses have anywhere they can go. You're just one of the crowd."
Evans helped Genoa introduce a small business incubator program downtown. After the first year, a second incubator opened and there are plans for a third, she said.
At one point, she said, the town's main street didn't have any vacancies, after having about six before the program started. The incubators became a marketing tool to attract new businesses.
"You have to make them think that your town is the place to be," Evans said. "If you want to start a business, this is the place to be. You have to be the place that rises to the top of the list."
Bob Vaughn owns and is renovating four buildings in Morrison, all built between 1880 to 1900, he said. Creating a viable economic environment, having patience and maintaining a unified downtown feel are key, he said – especially the patience.
"You need to morph that into scheduling and phases of projects," he said. "There's always folks on the sidewalk saying that you aren't doing anything."
But much of the work goes unseen, he said, and involves finding out what the foundation and the ground can support. Bringing in experts to find potential problems, he added, will pay for itself in the long run.
"I would not look at it as a barren form of land," Vaughn said of Prophetstown's downtown. "I would look at it as what the bigger picture is."
Stewart is confident that that bigger picture will start to take shape, and the town, which she said has rallied, will move on.
"With the can-do spirit of this community, it's only going to be a temporary roadblock," she said. "It's only going to be temporary."
You can help
Several efforts have begun to help victims of the July 15 fire:
– Prophetstown has set up a fund, “Main Street Fire Victims,” to help people start to rebuild their lives. Donations can be made at any of the three Farmers National Bank branches, in Prophetstown, Geneseo and Morrison.
– Prophetstown has set up a fund, “Rebuild Prophetstown Strong,” to help clean up and rebuild the downtown. Donations can be made at Farmers National Bank branches, in Prophetstown, Geneseo and Morrison, as well as IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union locations.
– Cragel’s, 345 Washington St. will host a fundraiser from 4 to 8 p.m. Aug. 24, featuring a 50/50 raffle, a silent auction and guest bartenders, including first responders and Mayor Steve Swanson, organizer Julie Pope said. Proceeds will be donated to the “Main Street Fire Victims” fund. For more information or to make donations, call Pope at 815-632-7806 or Muck Meier at 815-590-7756.
– Tampico residents Kate Fisk and Jamie Mosher are selling “Support Prophetstown” T-shirts for $15 or $17, depending on size, and hoodies for $30. According to a Facebook account, money raised will go to support victims of the fire. Orders can be dropped off at the following locations: Prophetstown Park District, 410 W. Riverside Drive; Kickback Saloon, 102 N. Main St. in Tampico; and Adami Insurance, 712 First Ave. in Rock Falls. To order or get more information, call 815-766-0732 or 815-499-4160.
– Prophetstown resident Sena Warkins, owner of Imprintable Memories in Rock Falls and niece of the owner of D’s Variety, which burned in the fire, is selling “We will rebuild” T-shirts for $20. The shirts feature a collage of color photos of the fire and the downtown buildings. Warkins is also selling coasters and mouse pads. Money raised will go to help rebuild the community. Orders can be made by calling Warkins at 815-535-0931 or 815-499-0201.