Viola gets plan for revitalizing the heart of the village

VIOLA, Illinois-- Driving through the crossroads of Mercer County brings you to the heart of Viola. US Highway 67 and Illinois 17 intersect in the middle of downtown. The Mayor of Viola Kirk Doonan that's why revitalizing the area is essential to the village's future.

"Instead of declining, hopefully, we've reached the bottom and we can start increasing," Doonan says.

The mayor of 19 years says he remembers when the buildings downtown were full of life. Now many are vacant and crumbling.

"It's just an unfortunate thing," he says. "A lot of downtowns are suffering from the same thing. We're all 100 years old, 150 years old, and the buildings are in need of some attention."

But the biggest question was what to do with the area.

That was answered by Mercery County Better Together, the University of Illinois Extension Office and one class. Earlier this year, U of I students conducted research and surveys in Viola to find out the best uses for the buildings and lots downtown that the village has bought over the years.

"The point of looking at your downtown is to keep your identity and keep your brand going," says Russell Medley, the University of Illinois Extension Community and Economic Development Educator. "What is the community comfortable with? And how are they going to take this plan and adapt it to their comprehensive plan and their financial planning?"

The 55-page final report concludes that the buildings aren't likely salvageable and should be torn down for new development. That includes a new green space and new buildings.

Doonan says they're looking at bringing in new businesses, from dentists and chiropractors to ice cream shops and restaurants. He says the village also wants to create a business incubator, where entrepreneurs can bring their ideas to life.

"People think about their downtown as the heartbeat, the lifeblood of their community," says Kyle McEwen, executive director of Mercer County Better Together. "This plan that's been put together reflects the amount of work and research and vision involved, and community feedback involved, in what it really takes to make that step from 'where we are' to 'where we want to be.'"

Doonan says the village is now looking at funding this project, setting long-term goals and attracting investors. He says they'll likely have five-year timelines for each portion of the project. He adds they'll look to use TIFF money and grants to cover the cost over the next 15 years.

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