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Projects overshadow Danville's lost jobs, population decline
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Projects overshadow Danville's lost jobs, population decline

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DANVILLE — If Danville were a math equation, there would be more pluses than minuses.

That's the opinion of many of those who were asked how the city is doing these days.

The pluses: Area parks that are second to none, demolition of dilapidated buildings, construction of a multimillion-dollar Carle facility, the promise of a new casino and the presence of a police chief who seems to be getting things done and is not afraid to work with community leaders.

The minuses: Lost manufacturing jobs, shrinking population, fewer people available to work and increased gun violence throughout the city.

All of the items on the bad side of living in the Danville area appear to prevail in many U.S. communities these days, The News-Gazette of Champaign reports.

"I think absolutely things are getting better," Danville Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. said. "This is how I describe it: We're not where we want to be, but we are trending in the right direction."

He cites work done by police Chief Chris Yates that has reduced crime in several categories, higher reserves in a general fund that had been greatly underfunded, razing of eyesore properties and a higher number of vacant buildings being filled by businesses.

"I'm not a Pollyanna. Things are not perfect ... but we are assuredly tracking in the right direction," Williams said. "We just created and hired a community relations administrator" who will highlight the positives of Danville life. "I think sometimes unfairly we get a bad rap."

Williams, like several others, pointed to community groups that have exhibited a greater desire to work together.

One segment is the church community. A group of pastors has been meeting in an attempt to break down walls among people of faith and eventually the population in general.

The Rev. Thomas Miller of New Life Church of Faith, who has been pastoring for 35 years, said the get-togethers are designed to help local faith leaders of all races "build relationships in order for our congregations to follow that — build relationships to open our churches to fellowship together."

Miller said the most recent of three get-togethers saw about 30 pastors and their wives attend. He estimated there are about 60 churches in Danville.

While Miller and the Rev. Greg Taylor of Second Church of Christ said many things have improved, many have gone the other way, as well, starting with the violence in the community.

Things appeared to have improved in that area until about six weeks ago, Taylor said, when a series of incidents took place, including the deaths of two men to gun violence.

Taylor and others cite the contribution Yates has made as police chief, overseeing a department that's fully staffed, unlike the case in many other nearby cities.

Yates said it takes a village to make it work, and that is happening.

"What we're seeing is a lot more involvement between different community leaders, the community itself and the city," Yates said.

Yates, who has served as Danville's top cop for two years, said the department is seeing crime numbers that "are indicative of improvement," but three areas stand out that need change for the better — domestic violence, sexual assault and traffic crashes.

Much has changed in Mike Puhr's two decades as a Danville alderman.

When he started in 2001, "we had already been through losing a lot of our big factories. It would be nice to say we're going to get manufacturing back again, but as we look through the Midwest, many other communities are in the same struggle we are."

Puhr said the city does have a great deal of warehousing that has filled in some of the gap. Other positives: Hiring is happening in the Eastgate area and "there is new retail looking at sites."

Williams said a number of vacant buildings downtown and on Voorhees Street are being filled. Six buildings on Voorhees alone will again be occupied in the next four to six months, including banks, the former social security building, a former retail facility and a former restaurant.

"We just approved a couple of TIF agreements to make those projects possible," Williams said.

Added Puhr: "We've been able to retain a lot" of businesses. "There are people looking. Anytime you continue to have retail, restaurants, it's jobs."

The 2020 Census numbers weren't kind to the area. Danville lost more than 3,800 people in the 10-year period to drop the population down to a little less than 29,000.

The Danville metropolitan area, which encompasses all of Vermilion County, lost 9.1% of its population, going from 81,625 to 74,188. It was the second-largest decline of 384 metro areas in the U.S., ahead of only Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

Neighboring Tilton lost 64 people. It now has a population of 2,660.

Both communities were hit hard when Tilton lost the GM powertrain foundry in 1995.

Steve Sims, local manager of the foundry site, said the location has been completely cleared and is ready for prospective businesses to move in. He said one such business is seriously considering locating there.

Twenty-year Tilton Mayor David Phillips said the village is working with an engineer to seek federal funding to upgrade the former Eighth Street entrance to clear the way for new business at that location.

Despite a dip in population, Phillips said the village is doing well and has increased its income. When he became mayor in 2001, the village brought in about $30,000 a month in sales tax. Monthly sales tax now totals $100,000. The village also gets $110,000 a month in home-rule tax, which voters approved.

Much of that additional sales tax comes from more businesses locating on Georgetown Road. The closed Stock and Field store has been purchased and is being renovated for a new business. Among the newer businesses: the Mach 1 truck plaza/gas station/convenience store, Dollar Tree and a Toyota car lot. The Chevrolet dealership has been updated.

Competing in Tilton and Danville can be tough, Phillips said.

"We border a state that gives away everything, in Indiana," he said, adding that Illinois needs to do something to make the state more business-friendly.

Phillips said Tilton is a member of the Vermilion Advantage economic development driver, which works hard for its communities. He said Advantage Director Tim Dudley got right to work when he was hired earlier this year.

Dudley said Danville's downtown is viable. He is working to bring more business to town.

The prospective casino in east Danville "took another step forward" recently when the Illinois Gaming Board loosened the reins to expedite its siting, Dudley said. The casino will likely bring additional hotel-restaurant development, Dudley said.

He said Danville has worked hard to demolish dilapidated structures, and improvement is needed on the city's east side.

Dudley said he works to promote economic development countywide. One promising area is West Main near Oakwood, which would require some infrastructure enhancement.

Also, "there is an opportunity for north Danville and how we can utilize our lake more."

Williams said Danville has improved its general fund reserves in the last three years, going from $300,000 to $9 million by "being better stewards of the people's money. We eliminated unnecessary positions and focused our projects on things that were necessities instead of wants or pet projects."

He said the city program to eliminate derelict buildings, in existence when he took office, has been ramped up, with 150 structures demolished in the last two years.

One focus area is "the Renaissance District," where investors had begun restoring beautiful homes but ran out of money, leaving some stately dwellings sitting next to rundown properties.

Yes, Danville has lost residents. In 1970, the population was 43,000, giving it 10,000 more residents than Urbana.

"Fast-forward to the early 2000s with the closure of General Electric and most of Hyster-Yale and General Motors, we lost over 7,000 jobs from those," Williams said.

All the while, the city continued to grow geographically. Neighborhoods were annexed. Others were built. But a population drop meant fewer people were paying for more infrastructure — roads, sanitary sewers, storm sewers.

Williams said the city has made a significant investment in its parks and pointed to Ellsworth Park, which has new playground equipment, shelter, restrooms, a basketball court and a disc golf course. The AMBUCS playground at Winter Park has been refurbished in partnership with that organization.

Maurissa Brown of Oakwood was in Ellsworth Park with her three children, nephews and nieces and said they visit there frequently during their home-school breaks.

"When you come to places like this, you can definitely see a big improvement from a few years ago," Brown said.

Otherwise, she said she believes Danville has not changed much "because our business development is not growing."

"There's nothing really for families to do in town together. We have a lot of bars and places to eat, but as far as going somewhere and spending time with your family in town," not much has changed.

"Our parks are really nice. Some of them are not in the best neighborhood. Our state park and our county park, those are wonderful treasures that we have. In that regard, I think we do have quite a jewel in Illinois, but I would say (Danville) is the same because our business isn't growing."

Sue Richter knows a great deal about the community, having served as Vermilion County Museum director in Danville since 1982. She hears negatives about the community but said it has held steady despite the population losses, hardly unique to Danville. The state lost more than 18,000 people in the last decade.

"It's a small town, and it's ever-changing," Richter said. "In the last census, everybody lost. I think that's kind of today's norm. But basically, I think it's a town that's looking to reinvent itself like most small towns are doing today."

Richter said in many ways Danville is doing a good job because "people are enthused about having new things and doing new things."

She pointed to a new program on Thursday nights downtown that seeks to draw people in.

"A lot of those kind of things are being developed," Richter said, noting some businesses are moving into the downtown area.

She said the community is good about repurposing buildings. The old post office, for instance, which is now the county administration building, and the old Carnegie library that is now the war museum. The Fischer Theatre was renovated a few years ago.

Puhr points to the $70 million Carle at the Riverfront project that will consolidate separate services on Fairchild and Vermilion and host more than 250 team members from those locations. "A tremendous shot in the arm," he said.

Puhr also pointed to the gradual development of the Kickapoo Rail Trail, a 24.5-mile retired railroad corridor that will extend from the east side of Urbana to the Vermilion County Fairgrounds and Kickapoo State Park. It is being developed by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District and the Vermilion County Conservation District.

Development of the new Danville casino has been a slow go, in part due to the pandemic. Puhr said to expedite the process, the state gaming board this month "came up with some new rules where the administrator is going to be able to expedite the licensing process. We're hoping this year we hear something as far as getting the go-ahead."

The facility will be located at the former Morris Flamingo plant in east Danville. As certain benchmarks are hit, a new standalone facility would be built.

"There's more positives than negatives" in Danville, Puhr said. "We've got great people. Every community has a couple bad apples. We have our share. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

Vermilion County Board member Jerry Hawker said he feels Danville has made significant progress in recent years, pointing to building demolition.

"A lot of our trouble area, in my opinion, has been the east end," he said. "I know we have crime and people are going to say, 'How do you think it's better?' I think it's better for the average, everyday citizen of the city. I'm not saying we don't have shootings. I personally think that's concentrated in certain groups of individuals. I don't feel scared or intimidated to walk around the city."

Hawker said he has seen "an amazing transformation in the west downtown area," and he can envision additional development resulting from the Carle project that will bring in out-of-towners.

"Give us a little more time, and I think Danville is going to surprise people," he said.

Among the most active local residents is McDonald's owner Deanna Witzel, who has been "very involved" in The Vermilion County Step Up leadership group and serves on the Vermilion Advantage executive council.

In terms of economics, Witzel said she believes Danville is doing well.

"We have a lot of momentum and are on the right track," she said. "I just feel like our county really came together through this whole COVID thing."

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