Bucking the trend: Lexington sees growth with 'small town feel, big city amenities' approach
With steady new construction, the opening of trendy businesses and even a slight population increase, Lexington in northern McLean County finds itself in a bit of a renaissance.
Take Lexington Social, a downtown restaurant in a renovated train depot. Operating on a four-day week, the place is usually booked with reservations.
Owner and chef Jon Fritzen is among a growing list of small business owners finding success in this small community — population, 2,100.
In just the last two years, and during a global pandemic, Lexington has seen more than a dozen businesses open. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, the city also is bucking the statewide trend of declining population.
"In Illinois, our smallest towns are shrinking," said Chris Merrett, who heads the Western Illinois University-based Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs. Adding 40 residents over a decade like Lexington has done, or even holding steady, is uncommon.
And it's not just the locals feeding the economy here, say business owners like Fritzen.
Over at Lexington Social, on a recent Saturday evening, he and his staff were busy with made-to-order dishes. He described one of the specials, and his penchant for incorporating locally-sourced products into the menu’s ecosystem.
“This is wild-caught sea bass, with local sweet corn from Epiphany Farms, with tomatoes that are from Cooks Farms, with peaches that are coming out of southern Illinois.”
Previously working with Epiphany Farms and Two Blokes and a Bus food truck, Fritzen opened his current eclectic eatery in February 2020.
More recently, his positive experience establishing the restaurant in Lexington influenced his brother and sister-in-law to follow suit: Steve and April Fritzen — co-owners of The Coffee Hound — announced this spring they'd bought property on Main Street, too. In a press release through the city of Lexington, they said they'd fallen in love with the community, and planned to relocate their Sirius Coffee Roasters facility to the former Brandt Ag property.
Lexington Mayor Spencer Johansen said although slated to open this fall, the roasting site's timeline may shift slightly, in light of Steve Fritzen's death earlier this month. After Sirius gets settled, plans call for a Coffee Hound cafe and drive-thru, too, he said.
Bloomington-Normal proximity a draw
Jon Fritzen says when scouting locales, he wanted an affordable building set into the central Illinois landscape, near quality farm-to-table sourcing options. But he had one key reason for picking Lexington: “Because of the proximity to Bloomington-Normal.”
Lexington's about 15 miles north of the Twin Cities, and Pontiac’s just another 20 miles up the road. The community is to the east of Interstate 55, with Route 66 tucked alongside.
In the past four years, Lexington Township has landed about $4 million in new housing construction, and another $2.5 million in new commercial construction.
The figure includes new buildings, as well as significant renovations to existing ones, said Tim Jorczak, McLean County supervisor of assessments.
Sometimes a small town will show a big figure for an isolated year. In Illinois that might be when a Dollar Store or Casey's gas station lands there, said Jorczak. But what makes Lexington's numbers stand out is how, over several years, the money arrived evenly spread out. That shows a consistent trajectory of investment, helping to improve the market value of the township.
Lexington did see a Casey's convenience store station open in 2020, near Interstate 55. But much of Lexington's new commercial construction was tied to small businesses, said Johansen.
Some of those projects include a cigar shop, two craft breweries, a lunch cafe, several boutiques, a pizza place — and even a Route 66-themed Airbnb.
Craft breweries find Lexington
Just a stone's throw away from Lexington Social is one of Lexington's newest arrivals: Analytical Brewing that opened just before the Fourth of July.
The company was founded by Hudson-area brewers Brian Graves, Andy Arndt, Nate Poehlman, and their spouses, Sam Graves, Heather Arndt and Stacy Poehlman, respectively. It offers about a dozen varieties, including some IPAs, a blond ale, and even a neighborly nod, with a chocolate coffee stout using Sirius Coffee.
The trio spent a year renovating the property that features an L-shaped patio along the west and south sides of the brewery.
Joe and Patty Solberg — regulars at Analytical Brewing — have lived in Lexington about a year. The couple raised their children in Normal, and then moved out by Lake Bloomington several years ago. But watching Lexington’s growth, they were drawn to the town.
"It's just a growing, vibrant community," said Joe Solberg, who has taught law at Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities. “We’ve been watching it grow for a decade.”
Graves credits a steady stream of locals, such as the Solbergs, as well out-of-town traffic, for attracting investors. Longtime Main Street favorites also have demonstrated loyal customers, he added, naming two in particular. For nearly 20 years, Kemp's Upper Tap, has made a name for itself — and even outgrew its original site — as a craft beer bar and grill. The Shake Shack, next door to Analytical Brewing, is a local burger and ice-cream joint that brings that classic old-fashioned small-town vibe.
“We see a lot of regulars who come in. But Lexington is becoming a destination city — a lot of traffic that comes from Bloomington-Normal as well," said Graves.
This fall, a second onsite craft brewery is set to open just a few blocks east. Fred and Heather Morissette’s Side Door Brewing at Lexington, is at 125 W. Main St.
Fred Morissette brings more than a decade of experience, with a specialty in bourbon-barrel aged beer and sours. The former head brewer at Destihl also plans a variety of beers in the tasting room to appeal to a broad range of beer fans.
The Morissettes’ have carefully renovated the antique, two-story building that was home to Lexington’s turn-of-the-century five-and-dime. Besides tasting rooms and outdoor seating, Side Door Brewing's upstairs will be available as event space, he said.
Both Analytical Brewing and Side Door Brewing expect to see some Route 66 tourism traffic, too. The Main Street sites join more than three dozen craft breweries situated in communities with ties to Illinois stretch of the Mother Road.
Keeping Main Street storefronts alive and thriving with businesses is one thing, said Johansen. But adding population is trickier because Lexington is facing a housing shortage.
Just this year, the last two lots in Trail Ridge subdivision sold. Home builder Nelson Kaeb just completed a $350,000 home on one of the lots. Even before construction began on his second lot, a contingent sale was in place.
A quick glance at Zillow shows typical homes in Lexington, when available, run about $200,000 — compared wth about $240,000 in Bloomington-Normal.
Johansen said a proposal for nearly 30-acre subdivision behind P.J. Keller Highway is in the works. He’s hopeful it’ll go through, blaming the pandemic for squashing an earlier development proposal elsewhere.
He expects the new area to be mixed-residential zones — with about 30 or 40 single-family lots, and two apartment complexes housing 30 units each. The homes likely would sell closer to $240,000.
The town’s economic development has brought increased property tax revenue. Lexington Schools Superintendent Paul Deters said the district put the gains into improving technology for its estimated 500 students, and into recruitment and retention of faculty and staff in an increasingly competitive job market.
Having available apartments closer to Lexington schools might help recruit young teachers, too, added Johansen.
The school district’s success is reciprocal: Families want to live in Lexington because of its great schools, he said. And when people build in Lexington township, it translates to more property tax revenue that goes into bettering schools.
Small-town success stories share characteristics
The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs' Merrett said Lexington is among just a few Illinois spots seeing steady population, or even slight growth.
“It’s a bit of an outlier, and yet there are other examples of communities that are sort of bucking the trend of population declining,” he said.
Similar-sized communities with population upticks on the 2020 U.S. Census include Mahomet, Monticello, Tuscola, Pleasant Plains, Sherman, and Downs, also located in McLean County.
In each case, either Springfield, Champaign, or Bloomington-Normal isn’t far away.
With about 1,400 residents, Downs has 700 fewer residents than Lexington. But Downs actually doubled in size since 2000, whereas Lexington saw about 5 percent growth in that same time period.
Merrett pointed to Downs’ selling points: It's home to the Epiphany Farms estate, large-home subdivisions, the well-respected Tri-Valley school district, and there's access to Interstate 74.
Looking north, Lexington also boasts a well-rated unified school district, medical facilities, a grocery store, and now two craft breweries.
Besides its I-55 access, Lexington gets those Route 66 enthusiasts, as well as outdoor lovers visiting recreation areas at Lake Bloomington, the Parkland Foundation’s Merwin Preserve and the nearby Mackinaw River.
America's favorite highway brings tourism
Mayor Johansen said back in its heyday, Route 66 drew people and revenue to the town.
Gas stations, a hotel, restaurants, and Main Street shops flourished in the mid-20th century. But the arrival of I-55, which ran parallel to 66, passed the town by.
Additional economic downturns hit in the 1970s and 1980s when shopping malls in Bloomington-Normal caused the decline of Lexington's Main Street shops, he said.
But now, tourism revenue is coming from the history buffs motoring and cycling the historic route that winds from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Spots of interest along Lexington's stretch are the 75-year-old Lexington Neon Arrow Sign, pointing motorists into town; a restored one-mile section of the original two-lane road dubbed Memory Lane; and other sites.
McLean County Museum of History’s Jeff Woodard said Lexington being a stop on Route 66 is bound to find bicyclists and motorists turning off to explore the town and its sites. The museum houses The Route 66 Visitors Center at its downtown Bloomington site.
Woodard said the Route 66 Miles of Possibility conference in Pontiac, Oct. 20-23, also will find people visiting Lexington's new haunts.
And, Lexington also takes part in the annual Route 66 Red Carpet Corridor Festival, a 90-mile self-guided tour from Joliet to Towanda each May, featuring local events along the way.
What’s ahead for Lexington
Lexington leaders are trying to create new housing options in town, and recruit more businesses. But rapid growth isn’t the goal: Most residents actually prefer it to remain a small town atmosphere — they just also want bigger city services, said Johansen.
“They want police protection, they want fire protection, they want quality water — and we supply all that,” he said.
It's worth looking into what makes certain small communities thrive, while others falter, said rural expert Merrett.
So-called growth communities share characteristics such as proximity to a larger metro area, easy interstate access, well-built infrastructure including broadband Internet, and local shopping options, especially a grocer.
With Lexington Finer Foods right on Main Street, the town checks all those boxes.
These successful towns also usually have extra amenities to set them apart from other nearby small towns, and key also is having leaders who actively market those selling points, said Merrett.
Talk to just about any business owner in downtown Lexington and they’ll tell you the mayor and other city leaders are all about selling Lexington’s “small town feel, big city amenities” motto shared on city pamphlets.
Analytical Brewing’s Graves said it's no surprise more businesses keep choosing the town as a base of operations.
“I think it's really what the city of Lexington is doing to draw business in," he said. "Lexington was the first place, kind of on our short list.”
Co-owner Nate Poehlman said a year ago, the brewers inquired on a Monday about possibly locating in Lexington, and days later Johansen was showing them available properties. Poehlman said the city has helped the company every step of the way.
New resident Joe Solberg thinks investors also are drawn to the company they'll keep. "The caliber and quality of businesses that are here, honestly make it a go-to place," he said.
Elected to city council, and then in 2017 mayor, Johansen now is in his second term. The former longtime Lexington police chief, who is a lifelong resident, said as a retiree he can focus full time on city business. That’s good for the town, according to IIRA’s Merrett.
“Many small towns don’t have a full-time mayor. The alderpersons — they’re volunteer. They may get a per diem, or they may get a, you know, a travel budget. But they’re not getting paid.”
When it comes to recruiting businesses, planning housing developments and that sort of work, having someone dedicated to writing grants and developing relationships with county and state officials can make a huge difference, he said.
"To do it well, you have to do it full time. When it’s done on a volunteer, part-time basis, you’re keeping the lights on, you’re keeping the potholes filled. But you’re not really looking out on the horizon: ‘What could we be?’"
The Rural Institute works in all 102 of Illinois’ counties, and partners with Illinois State University’s Stevenson Center for Economic Development. Both entities work with small towns interested in hiring graduate assistants to help with community development. But those programs generally require a town to invest $10,000 to $20,000 for the intern program, said Merrett.
One of Merrett's interns last year created an incentive plan to woo remote workers to Mattoon. That's another angle smaller communities are researching, he said: With the growing popularity of work-from-home jobs, and some people's desire for small-town life, maybe that could reinvigorate small towns.
"With good broadband and a decent coffee shop," some people could be drawn to small town life, he said.
Lexington’s recent success is an example of what can happen when a community has someone — in this case retiree Johansen — dedicated full time to community and economic development, Merrett said.
Some amenities Lexington boasts are a doctor’s office, a hardware store, a community center, gyms, and even a physical therapist office.
Josh Smith, a therapist based nearly two decades in Normal, chose in 2020 to open his own practice in Lexington, Ultra Physical Therapy.
“Even 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, you could still see that Lexington had a lot going for it — a very active main street,” said Smith, adding that he and his wife liked Lexington so much, the Normal family is relocating, building a new home just on the outskirts of town.
Growth, but taking it slow
While Lexington does have some newer residents, most people have called the place home for decades, and often generations, said Johansen.
Everyone can get on board with new businesses, and new tax revenue to support the towns and schools, but that doesn’t mean they want unchecked growth.
No offense to Bloomington-Normal, but Lexington doesn’t want to become another metro area, said Johansen, noting what people like about Lexington is the small-town feel.
“I mean, they want to see us grow in as far as businesses and attracting people to town, and (to) attract new families to town. But at a moderate pace, I’ll say.”
The mayor and council continue to build plans to improve the town's infrastructure, but, of course, improvements cost money, said the mayor.
As chair of the Mclean County Mayors’ Association, Johansen leads a 21-member group made up of small town leaders.
He's proud the group successfully lobbied for nine of the communities to boost their own American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds — with more than $4 million dollars in COVID-relief funding, via the McLean County Board.
More than a quarter of that was earmarked for a drinking water infrastructure project in Saybrook. But Lexington received $250,000, and added that to its own ARPA money, to fund a $500,000 water tower rehab.
That's a win, he said. But in small, aging towns, there’s always more work to be done.
In November, Lexington Township voters will decide on whether to raise the sales tax, said Johansen. “We’re looking at increasing that to the 1%. And that would still put us at one of the lower rates in McLean County,” he said.
No place like Lexington
Whether electric automaker Rivian's arrival in Normal — with its thousands of new jobs — has affected Lexington’s growth remains unclear to Johansen. But he said he hopes efforts to expand housing in the small town, and to bring in a variety of so-called destination businesses can attract some of those workers, and their spending cash.
“We’re on the right track, as far as the housing. If we get this subdivision locked down, I think we’ll be in good shape," he said.
The community now known as Lexington came about in 1855, with white settlers arriving in the 1830s. Before that, the land was home to the Kickapoo.
These days, the Census data show Lexington as about 98% white. Johansen acknowledged a lack of racial diversity, for now. But he likes to think of Lexington as a very welcoming community for everyone.
At times, he's been frustrated by the political climate in Illinois. People constantly complaining about the state, and threatening to leave can be disheartening, he said. A self-described optimist, the lifelong Lexingtonian said he’d prefer we be more patient with Illinois, and this central region, in particular.
“With Rivian in this area, I think that’s a good boost for us. And I’m not ready to give up on it (Illinois.) I mean, I think we’re doing good. I just can’t say enough about how much I love this job, and I love this state, and I love this town.”
As for Lexington’s momentum, Johansen intends to keep the slow-but-steady growth mindset. Getting that next subdivision in place is his main priority now, he said.
While some Illinoisans are bent on leaving the state, for Mayor Johansen, there’s no place like home — and no place like Lexington.
He’s made it his mission to spread the word.