Wataga tries to stop the trend of small towns losing citizens

WATAGA, Illinois – Illinois has lost population in each of the past three years and that trend is expected to continue for at least the next three years.

No areas have been harder hit than small, rural communities.

Places like Knox County have seen their populations drop, not only due to jobs lost in Galesburg but from people leaving all the farm communities surrounding it.

Wataga ia a Knox County village just northeast of Galesburg.

Like Wataga.

Barb Johnson is packing up to leave town.

"It's time for somebody else to enjoy this house."

It's bittersweet.  She hopes to find a home nearby in Galesburg but she knows she'll be losing out on small town life.

"I'm going to miss my neighborhood and just being safe."

But Barb is not alone.

Wataga has fewer than 800-residents and has lost 15 of them this decade alone.

On a bigger scale, Knox County has lost almost 4% of its population in seven years.

"It's very, very dangerous when communities start to lose population because, as you know, you have less taxpayers paying into the system," explained Knox County Partnership for Economic Development president Ken Springer.

And Wataga is about to be tested.

Jimmy's Pizza, a restaurant well-known in the area, burned to the ground in June of 2017. Owners decided not to rebuild in Wataga.

A year ago, the popular Jimmy's Pizza restaurant burned to the ground.  Months later, owners said they'd rebuild.

But not in Wataga.

"That's a loss to us," admitted Wataga Village President Eli Calkins.

He knows his community's future depends on every person he can keep in Wataga.

"I hope we can maintain our population and not have to raise a lot of taxes."

But how can a community like Wataga do that?

It doesn't have a major industry.  It's downtown is hollowed out after Jimmy's was razed and gravel replaced it.

"Rural areas all define economic differently," explained Springer.  "Some communities very much want to be bedroom communities. Others really want to have the old classic downtown. They want a drug store, a gas station, they want to have a couple places to eat."

An empty, gravel filled lot is what's left of Jimmy's Pizza. The new owner of the tavern on the right would like to help redevelop the entire block.

For Wataga, its existence has literally been a trial by fire.  The loss of Jimmy's Pizza is only the latest chapter.

There was a hardware store and a grocery store once on the Main Street.  Some of those businesses were lost to a downtown fire 100-years ago.

Wataga once had a hotel, Wataga House, near the train depot.  It was lost to a fire.

And the train doesn't stop in Wataga any more.

It's turned Wataga into something very different.

"We've been pretty much a bedroom community for a number of years," said Calkins.

Wataga neighborhoods are less than four minutes from Galesburg.   Add that convenience to the popularity of ROWVA schools and Wataga's president says there's a chance to turn the village's fortunes around.

"Everybody's looking for a house to rent or buy."

Just ask Barb Johnson.

The house she and her husband built sold just days after it was put on the market last month.  And a young couple will be moving in just a few days from now.

A much-needed new generation for Wataga.

But it's bittersweet for Barb.

"Somebody will come up to me and say 'Hey, heard you sold your house. I'm sorry to see you go'.  And it tugs at your heart."

As for that block where Jimmy's once stood, the new owner of the Watter's Edge tavern says he hopes to open an outdoor beer garden and perhaps renovate the entire block.