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After Tough Stretch, Downtown Bloomington Is Having A Moment

Janet at the counter
Jeff Smudde
Janet Mariani's new business, Main Street Scoop, opened May 25 in Downtown Bloomington.

Janet Mariani needed a home for her first business—an ice cream shop. She chose Downtown Bloomington.

She considered Uptown Normal instead. But it already has an ice cream shop. And Mariani had fallen in love with downtown over the past three years as she painted at Merlot and a Masterpiece. She also knew downtown needed something for kids.

Breaking news: Kids love ice cream.

“It’s just a different vibe. You get a homier feeling down here,” Mariani said.

Mariana’s Main Street Scoop, which opened May 25, is one of many pieces of good news this year in Downtown Bloomington. That includes many other new business openings—and one notable business that’s staying put—plus the pending sale of the State Farm building, the creation of the City of Bloomington’s new Economic Development Department, and the formal designation of the Cultural District. Downtown even has its first recycling bins this summer.

In short: Downtown Bloomington is having a bit of a moment.

Ice Cream Cones
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Main Street Scoop is one of several new businesses that have opened (or soon will) in Downtown Bloomington.

“The vibes are just growing here,” Mariani said.

For several years downtown has been overshadowed by Uptown Normal, where the Town of Normal has invested heavily in new construction and cultural programming, said Greg Yount, manager at Coldwell Banker Commercial real estate in Bloomington. As Uptown Normal worked to lure daytime workers with the Trail East project, downtown’s 2018 began with news that State Farm was vacating its building there.

Now it’s the more recent positive developments—including the city’s new four-person Economic Development Department—that are being noticed, Yount said.

“There are a lot of very loyal customers and business owners and real estate owners in Downtown Bloomington,” Yount said.

One of them is Specs Around Town. Julie Kubsch, owner of the boutique eyewear retailer, actually announced in 2018 that she was leaving downtown too. She planned to be part of VisionPoint, a new $10 million eye center opening Aug. 6 on Bloomington’s east side.

But two weeks ago, Kubsch announced she was staying independent and staying put in downtown, a decision mutually reached with VisionPoint. She’ll close for 2-3 weeks in July for some remodeling at 317 N. Center St., then reopen Aug. 1.

Kubsch said she loves her familiar location and her space. 

“It’s just an awesome community of people. They get it. They get shopping local,” Kubsch told GLT. “It’s a very nice community of getting to know the other business owners, and everybody can relate to how hard it is to own your own business.” 

Specs Around Town has been downtown for 20 years. Kubsch has seen the ebb and flow. Indeed, as Main Street Scoop opens for business, Bedtime Boutique owner Brenda Tannahill announced Tuesday she’s retiring and will close Aug. 31. 

“I’ve learned over two decades that change (in downtown) is slow,” Kubsch said. “And it’s always, ‘Yay, there’s three great things, and two not so great things happen. It’s a constant revolving door of excitement. Sometimes it’s depression. Sometimes it’s excitement.”

Daniella Barroqueiro felt that excitement in March when she opened her new downtown business, The Little Art School, at 415 N. Main St. She offers classes and programs to artists of all ages, with a focus on especially young children and families. 

Barroqueiro, who teaches at Illinois State University’s School of Art, said she’s been “an Uptown Normal kind of girl for awhile.” But she was attracted to downtown in part by her new landlord Mike Manna’s plans to create space for creative businesses.

“This was the first place where I felt like I had a connection with it. And I really, really wanted it to work. I loved the feel and the energy of the place, and the people,” she said. “There was a welcoming vibe I got from the other businesses in the area.”

Another new downtown business is Tony’s Tacos, which opened a second location in July 2018 at 105 W. Front St., across the street from the McLean County Law and Justice Center. The first Tony’s Tacos opened in Normal near ISU in 2016.

Co-owner Norma Ortiz said they liked the downtown location because it had a seating area and a bar—so they could finally deliver the margaritas customers had been clamoring for. And downtown didn’t really have a sit-down Mexican restaurant, she said.

“We tried it. And I think we’re doing pretty good. We’re new, so a lot of people don’t even know we’re there,” Ortiz told GLT. “And those people who do go in there are surprised we have a bar and say, ‘It’s totally different from the other Tony’s.’”

The biggest challenge, she said, has been parking and construction. Front Street—right outside Tony’s—was torn up for most of the spring for extensive roadwork.

“But now that they fixed up the roads, it looks really nice. It gives it a whole new look and atmosphere,” Ortiz said. “Hopefully there’s not a lot of work left.”

Coldwell Banker Commercial broker Laura Pritts just sold 413 N. Center St., a two-story building with two upstairs apartments and a first-floor business space. Pritts said there was a lot of interest from retailers and service businesses looking to occupy the first floor and rent out the second floor for extra income.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of activity we saw on that one,” Pritts said.

Storefronts are in demand downtown, Pritts said. Demand for office space is soft, but that’s true communitywide, she said.

“I wouldn’t say everybody’s jumping out of their shoes, but there’s a good, modest level of activity downtown,” Yount added.

The City of Bloomington is working to maintain (and share online) a more comprehensive list of commercial vacancies—for lease or purchase—in the downtown area, said Melissa Hon, director of the city’s 3-month-old Economic Development Department. A commercial real estate report for downtown was last updated in April.

The city’s downtown division was folded into the new Economic Development Department. That’s already led to valuable streamlining on communications, Hon said, leading to better coordination of social media announcements and creation of new downtown-specific notifications through the city’s govDelivery marketing tool.

“Definitely there’s a buzz about downtown. We’ve been seeing more and more business owners coming to the Economic Development Department who are interested in downtown,” Hon said.

One of the most visible vacancies downtown may soon be filled—at least partially.

State Farm Building

State Farm is set to close this summer on the sale of its former downtown headquarters, which it vacated last year. A former alderman described State Farm’s exit—it once had hundreds of workers based there—as a wake-up call for the city’s downtown revitalization efforts.

The buyer and purchase price have not been disclosed. Champaign-based broker Jill Guth, who is handling the deal, says the new owner wants to find a restaurant tenant for the first floor, with office and even co-working space above. She did not respond to requests for comment this week.

The mystery buyer had a 90-day window to perform due diligence on the property, while also actively searching for tenants.

“It’s going to be very important that (they) have very serious people willing to commit medium- or long-term there before they buy it,” said Yount, the commercial real estate agent. “We would like nothing more than to see that happen. But there’s really no certainty to that. We’re very careful when we talk to people who ask about it. We say, ‘It’s not a deal yet.’”

Added State Farm spokesperson Gina Morss-Fischer: “Nothing new to report. We continue to work through the process.”

There is a lot of unfinished business downtown. Recommendations in the Downtown Bloomington Task Force’s final report, issued in October 2017, are still largely unaddressed. Bloomington Planning Commission chair Justin Boyd, who served on the task force, said the recent resurfacing of Main Street was a good opportunity to enact one of their recommendations: remove a lane of traffic to make it safer for pedestrians, and convert parallel parking spots into even more diagonal spots.

 Front N Center building
Credit Staff / WGLT
The vacant Front N Center building remains an eyesore in the heart of Downtown Bloomington.

“This is an easy-to-accomplish recommendation that the city has had on (its) shelf for nearly two years,” Boyd wrote on Facebook. “I would hope now is the right time to follow through on this plan.”

The task force’s call for a so-called “catalyst” project received a muted response from the Bloomington City Council; a proposed joint Connect Transit-Bloomington Public Library catalyst project failed to gain traction. (Connect Transit is moving ahead on its own with plans to build a new transfer center in downtown.)

And highly visible eyesores like the Front N Center building remain vacant. Mayor Tari Renner has expressed interest in using eminent domain to seize the building across from Grossinger Motors Arena, but that has yet to happen.

Still, for now, there is momentum. Last month the Bloomington City Council formally established the city’s 20-block downtown cultural district and set its geographic boundaries. That could open the door for grant funding, Hon said.

“Keep your eyes peeled. There are some things in the works all the time. So we’re looking forward to some fall openings of some new and exciting things downtown.”

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.