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Small town leaders convene in Lexington to address common challenges — and opportunities

A daytime view of a small town street with a row of colorful, historic buildings, including a barbershop and other storefronts. An American flag is displayed from one building, and a few cars are parked along the street. The sky is clear and bright.
Emily Bollinger
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WGLT
More than a dozen local businesses have opened in the small McLean County community of Lexington over the past four years. Currently, every storefront on Main Street is occupied

The city of Lexington invited five Central Illinois counties to participate in this weekend's inaugural America’s Small Town Leaders Conference — an event gathering officials from communities with fewer than 5,000 residents.

As many small towns grapple with declining populations — LeRoy, El Paso, Saybrook, Secor, McLean, Towanda and Chenoa, to name a few — Lexington is growing.

“Things are good in Lexington,” said Mayor Spencer Johansen. “My goal when I became mayor was to turn Lexington from a bedroom community to a destination point. I thought it would take longer but I think we’re there.”

There are signs of Johansen’s success. Lexington’s population has increased by 5% since 2000. And business is booming. Main Street has no vacancies after recent editions like Lexington Social and Analytical Brewing. The town will soon add a hardware store and Mexican restaurant off the main strip. An Air BnB, Route 66 and public art attract tourists.

Still, there are challenges.

“Smaller communities have the same issues as larger communities, only on a smaller scale,” said Johansen. The retired chief of police attributes some of Lexington’s success to his ability to commit 40 hours a week to the job.

“A lot of the leadership [of small towns] have full-time jobs,” he said. “We don’t have the staff large cities have. We don’t have grant writers. We don’t have a team of attorneys. How do we compete with the Bloomington-Normals in writing a grant for infrastructure?”

Two smiling men, one in a blue shirt and the other in a dark shirt, stand in front of a "Historic Illinois Route 66" sign. They are indoors near a service window with an office in the background. Both men are older with white hair and beards.
Lauren Warnecke
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WGLT
Lexington Mayor Spencer Johansen, right, hosts the inaugural Small Town Leaders Conference Saturday, June 22 at the Lexington Community Center. Speaker Rex Osborn, left, is among the conference's featured guests, with sessions on community grant writing, economic development and a Q&A with the Illinois Liquor Commission and Gaming Board.

As a result, towns and smaller cities struggle to collect on their share of county, state and federal money that’s on the table. As chair of the McLean County Mayors Association, Johansen said the relationships between Bloomington-Normal and McLean County's small towns has become a collegial one; their coordination helped move needed infrastructure projects forward such as Saybrook's new water tower— an investment whose cost otherwise would have been passed to the town’s 650 residents.

“You have to wear many hats being mayor and city councilmen in these small towns,” Johansen said. “I think this conference is going to help some of these smaller communities come up with a plan on how to address these issues.”

“Not that many years ago, cities like Lexington, Colfax and Chenoa went through out migration,” said Rex Osborn, a former small town city manager who now runs conference organizer Speakers Plus. “We’re starting to see a change from outmigration to migration. They have to have infrastructure; they have to have water and sewer capacity. You want to bring these people — but can you support them?”

Conference sessions include a panel with the Illinois Liquor Commission and Gaming Board, “outside-the-box” economic development, grant writing, cultural sensitivity and dealing with difficult people.

Osborn additionally points to the importance of access to medical care and schools as critical to small towns' success.

In Lexington’s case, Johansen is careful to balance growth with the small-town identity attracting people to the town.

“I certainly want to keep that hometown feel,” he said.

For example, he is measured about incentivizing small businesses and cautious about what a big box store could do to their downtown. He’s also supportive of maintaining an independent school district.

“I think when people look at moving out of the larger cities, the first thing they look at is the school system,” Johansen said. “We’ve let the schools do their thing, then we’ve stepped up the game as far as the community and the amenities we offer. Now, all we need to do is add housing.”

No vacancy

Like Bloomington-Normal, Lexington is experiencing a housing shortage hindering further growth. A new subdivision slowed down by the pandemic is expected to have homes ready for sale this fall.

“There are no houses for sale,” said Johansen. “There are no apartments for rent. From what I understand with the realtors there is a lot of interest in Lexington, we just don’t have the housing for it.”

A person with short hair wearing glasses and a light patterned shirt is pointing at a detailed map on the wall. The map shows various sections with pathways, greenery, and buildings. The setting appears to be an office with framed pictures on another wall.
Emily Bollinger
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WGLT
Lexington Mayor Spencer Johansen talks about the need for more housing in Lexington on July 20, 2022, at Lexington City Hall. After pandemic delays held up the project, homes in the new Century Oaks subdivision are expected to go on sale this fall.

Rural broadband

The digital divide is another ongoing challenge. Money from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill was earmarked for rural broadband access, including McLean County. Some of that money came to Lexington, but so far, it has only helped people who already had access.

“We recently had two or three companies come in and install fiber optics and improved it in the city itself,” Johansen said. “But define ‘rural’ to me. We’ve got people five miles outside of town that it’s almost the old dial-up.”

State money has also been allocated for rural broadband initiatives. In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission allocated $100 million to bring internet access to Illinois farm towns.

“To me, if you’re going to do broadband, it needs to be widespread all across the county,” he said. “When they came to Lexington, everybody was pretty well set. All they did was add options for us.”

Vendors told Johansen they would not extend new fiber optics lines outside city limits because there was not enough population density to justify costs.

“That’s sad. There’s money out there,” Johansen said. “Let’s figure it out.”

More recently, the Illinois Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Program is in the process of determining how it will spend $1 billion aimed at bridging the digital divide. In February, McLean County officials urged residents to test their internet service—through an online assessment tool. Those without any internet access were encouraged to submit proof to McLean County, such as a letter from an internet service provider stating that they don’t cover a certain area.

“I think we get lost when we describe rural areas,” Johansen said. “They think of Lexington as a rural area. And we’re not.”

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.