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The art of downtown revitalization in Morrison

Confident investors receive cultural infusion

MORRISON – The cornerstone has been found for a planned arts corridor spearheaded by the city’s economic development nonprofit.

The Morrison Area Development Corp. and the Children’s Art Preservation Association have been planning the Morrison Arts, Cultural and Entertainment Corridor, which the city officially supported with a resolution passed at its June 26 City Council meeting.

The first step in implementing the plan was to establish a high-end art gallery and studio in the downtown, which is the center of the corridor area.

MACD will rent space at 112 E. Main St. from new owners Josh and Kelly West. The gallery will be called Loft 112, and organizers hope to have it open before year’s end.

“We’re targeting early December, but it should definitely be open before Christmas,” said Kim Ewoldsen, executive director at the development corporation. “We’re asking artists to submit their work, and the gallery and studio should be ready early next year.”

The historic brick structure was built in 1892 to be a dry goods store, and later was a men’s clothing shop for more than a half-century. Most recently, the building was home to Gallery on Main, a gallery and antiques store.

Loft 112 and the entire arts corridor project has a broad regional scope and the steering committee is collaborating with many organizations and individuals to make it a reality.

“There are artists all over the region, including Iowa and Wisconsin, that are excited about this project, so making this an artists’ haven could bring a lot of visitors to town,” Ewoldsen said.

Open houses will be planned for artists when the space is ready to be shown off, and a grand opening ceremony will follow.

One of MACD’s partners in the project is Morrison Institute of Technology. The school is building an 8,000-square-foot multipurpose Innovation Center that should be ready to open in the spring. One of its purposes is to provide space and equipment for artists to cultivate their vision.

“There will be plenty of room in the Innovation Center for artists to create, and then the work can be sold, bringing another retail element to the downtown,” Ewoldsen said.

The school and MACD has been in discussions about MIT carving out some studio space at the gallery, possibly on the second floor.

The arts corridor would extend through much of the city east and west along U.S. Route 30, and on the south side of town along state Route 78, connecting the downtown with MIT.

The infusion of the arts into the downtown comes at a time when momentum has been building in the central business district. Vacant buildings are filling up and business owners are investing in their properties.

One of the steadying influences in the downtown, Happy Joe’s, celebrated its 30th anniversary in Morrison this year, and its owners have made a huge commitment to its future there.

Kevin and Lynn Kenady, who have owned the business at 109 W. Main St. the entire time, recently finished the first phase of its ambitious expansion plans. They bought a couple of vacant buildings near the restaurant a few years ago, and the Brick Block Pub opened last month in the tastefully renovated space at 105 W. Main St.

The restaurant has been remodeled and the party room has been moved downstairs for easier access. Customers have appreciated their investment and business has been brisk.

“We still have the Happy Joe’s family atmosphere, but customers will have easy access to more of a pub option,” Lynn Kenady said.

While the Happy Joe’s and Brick Block Pub project have been a big boost to the downtown, there also has been a flurry of other activity on Main Street.

Jessica Anderson, a Prophetstown High School grad, opened an insurance office in the downtown last month. Anderson, a Farmers Insurance agent, is at 207 E. Main St., once home to a beauty salon.

A Dixon insurance agency, Trinity Financial, has set up a satellite office in Morrison. Agent Amber Blumhoff and Angie VanderVinne, a marketing specialist, are running the business at 127 E. Main St.

John and Julie Burleson opened Burleson Antiques last month at 121 E. Main St., the site of another historic building dating back to 1900 that most recently housed an office supplies store.

Another pub in town, Fat Boys at 201 E. Main St., and Sullivan’s Foods at 300 N. Madison St., recently have undergone substantial renovations.

Reinvestment seems to be contagious, and several other businesses are making smaller upgrades.

“There have been a lot of changes and activity in the downtown just since I’ve been here,” said Chamber coordinator Meridith Layne, who started the job in March.

Morrison is a very arts-oriented town, Layne said, and building on the cultural element is an exciting part of the downtown’s future.

“Paint the Town has been very successful here for many years, and this is a way to build on a strength that we already have,” she said.

The Children’s Art Preservation Association sponsors the city’s popular Paint the Town event, which consistently brings in about 6,000 visitors each year.

The arts corridor can help unify the efforts of the entire city to recreate a vibrant downtown, Layne said.

“Traditional downtowns everywhere have to reinvent themselves and rebrand, and Kim is good at looking outside the box. The arts corridor is strengthening partnerships here, and it can connect people from other towns and bring them here.”

The efforts of the downtown business community also make a compelling case to proceed with the city’s preliminary plans for an estimated $1.9 million road and water main project in the business district. Plans include a rebuild of a five-block area of Main Street from Orange to Clinton streets. The area also needs a larger water main and ADA-compliant sidewalks.

Downtown business owners have been receptive to the project, but the upgrades are a high-priority need for the entire city, City Administrator Barry Dykhuizen said.

“The mayor has been talking to the businesses, and no one could even remember when Main Street was last done,” Dykhuizen said. “This is one of the worst streets in town, and it has a 4-inch water main that they don’t even let you use anymore.”

Although it’s a badly needed infrastructure project, city leaders say getting it done sends a strong message to the downtown business community.

“Doing this project would definitely be a vote of confidence in your downtown, and I think that even just having these conversations energizes the businesses, and they are responding,” he said.

While the city supports the arts corridor project, taxpayer money won’t be used for it. The economic development group will pay rent on the gallery for now, with the hope artists’ fees can eventually be used. The organizers are taking donations, looking for grant opportunities and working to set up a separate nonprofit for the project.

Although the arts center would be the initial focus, organizers see a wealth of possibilities developing along the arts corridor.

“The gallery is a great starting point, because people could actually watch artists create in the studio and buy the art,” Ewoldsen said. “There’s really no limit though to what we could eventually include.”

Discussions have included the MIT collaboration, a traveling gallery, an artist-in-residence program, special events and collaborative efforts with other arts groups throughout the region.

An agreement has been reached with Woodlawn Arts Academy in Sterling to partner on classes in spring and summer, Ewoldsen said.

Woodlawn already offers theater classes in Dixon. The age range for classes would likely extend from preschoolers to adults.

More information on the classes should be available in January.

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