A few city leaders and gamechangers in Oregon, Ill.

How Oregon Rescued Itself

Just four years ago, this small town in Ogle County was called out as a “Triple Threat” for its high poverty, jobless rate and low average incomes. Today, it’s a bustling town with a promising future.

A few city leaders and gamechangers in Oregon, Ill.
A few city leaders and gamechangers in Oregon, Ill.

The city of Oregon, Ill., has a good story to tell. If written as a children’s book, it might go like this:

Once upon a time, a pretty little town called Oregon was nestled alongside a river beneath a castle. Its 3,700 people were very happy until some nagging problems grew too big during the economic recession.

Like many small Midwestern towns, Oregon found itself a victim of the recession. People despaired. Its downtown storefronts were mostly empty. A new subdivision stood abandoned. Jobs were getting hard to find. Infrastructure needed upgrading. Even the beloved Eternal Indian statue (aka “Black Hawk”) that watches over Oregon was crumbling and had to be covered in black plastic – a constant reminder of hard times.

Soon the little city appeared on a naughty “Triple Threat” list in 2014 that no good city wants to be on. It ranked No. 5 in northern Illinois for high poverty, a high jobless rate and low average incomes.

The people of Oregon were sad. They loved their pretty little town.

“These problems are too big for us,” they cried. But no one came to fix their town.

Then one day some of them got together and said, “We can do better than this. We have a beautiful place to live with good things in it. We can make the bad things smaller and the good things bigger. We think we can. We think we can. We think we can.”

And they did.

Today Oregon’s downtown is bustling. Its debt load is small and its infrastructure is being upgraded. People now live in the formerly vacant subdivision. And the townspeople are working together to make good things happen. Even the Eternal Indian will be restored to full glory by next summer.

Will the town live happily ever after?

Fingerprints on the Future

A decade ago, Oregon resident Ken Williams saw his town struggling and thought maybe he could help. His financial prowess and life experience seemed a good fit.

In 2007, he got himself elected to the five-person city council, assumed oversight of the budget and made some hard decisions.

“Eleven years ago the city was nearly broke,” he explains. “We had to cut $200,000. We also asked the public to add 1 cent to the 6.25 sales tax for roads. They approved it with a 53 percent vote when other area referendums were being turned down.”

Gradually, the budget improved. The city’s bond rating rose twice, lessening its debt interest.

But Williams thought Oregon could do even better; he also sensed a “pent-up restlessness” among residents. He was mulling over a run for mayor when that fateful 2014 Triple Threat report was published.

“That’s what sealed the deal for me,” he says. “None of the three items used in the study – poverty level, median household income and unemployment rate – are short-term fixes. But I believed all could be improved by creating a more dynamic business culture in our city.”

He was elected mayor in 2015 and immediately began asking citizens to serve their city. He often took individuals to lunch to share his vision with them. One was Terry Schuster, a school psychologist recently retired from the Ogle County Educational Cooperative. “It took me three years to get Terry to run for commissioner, but it was worth it,” Williams says. “Getting good people to accept responsibility for the community’s future is key.”

“I never expected to do this,” says Schuster. “But I do believe in the adage, ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’” Schuster fills the finance commissioner shoes Williams once wore, despite having no background in finance.
“Ken showed me the ropes,” he says.

Williams surrounded the city council with what he describes as “smart, forward-thinking people who are engaged with our city” in private and public sectors. Years later, he and Schuster still devote much time to identifying and recruiting volunteers.

“We tell people, ‘This is your chance to put your fingerprint on the city’s future,’” says Schuster. “When you think about it, that really is pretty exciting.”

They also intentionally pursue relationships with regional groups like Blackhawk Waterways, Blackhawk Hills Regional Council and nearby universities.

“We don’t rely on our expertise alone,” says Williams. “We need to collaborate regionally. That’s how the Midwest survives.”

One example is the privately funded welding lab installed at the Oregon School District.

“We have a cluster of three firms that do metal fabricating in our area and employ about 700 people,” Williams says. “There’s an effort to ‘grow your own’ workforce to fill these jobs. Sauk Valley and Highland community colleges are involved, too. Our school district has become a nexus for these connections.”

As a first-time mayor, Williams knew he had a lot to learn.

“If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work, there are people who’ll teach you how to do what needs to be done,” he says.

At about the same time Williams was learning how to be mayor, an engaged group of local volunteers brought in a citizen planning and volunteer recruiting program sponsored by the Western University Institute of Rural Affairs. The result was a citywide volunteer group called Oregon Together.

“The university took us through a planning session to help us map our assets and opportunities, identify our threats, set goals and make action plans,” Williams explains. “You learn to look at your untapped potential, not just your problems. We don’t have railroads, like Rochelle does, but we have a lot of other strengths.”

Among them:

• Oregon is the seat of Ogle County and therefore home to beautiful county buildings for which it pays nothing. The county employs many Oregon citizens.

• Oregon Park District receives nearly $3 million a year in tax revenue from Byron’s nuclear plant. Top-notch facilities and a huge array of programming – everything from personal fitness training to culinary classes – allow the city to market its family-friendly, high quality of life. The park district shares facilities with Oregon schools, which helps to keep school taxes down.

• Oregon is located on a beautiful stretch of the Rock River near three state parks – Lowden, Castle Rock and White Pines. Visitors often stop in for a meal or to shop. Tourism casts the revenue net far beyond city boundaries, a concept every mayor loves.

“We have about 30 eateries – not bad for a city with 3,700 residents,” says Schuster. The city’s zip code includes 7,000 residents, but about 60,000 people live within a 15-mile radius.

• Oregon has a rich history and strong arts culture to leverage. Illinois Route 64 runs through it. Lowden State Park was the playground of legendary Eagle’s Nest Art Colony, founded in 1898 by renowned artist Lorado Taft, sculptor of The Eternal Indian. Taft’s legacy inspires local artists to this day.

Oregon’s best asset, however, may be its small-town warmth.

“People know each other and wave ‘hello’ here,” says Schuster. “We’re like a Mayberry in the 21st century.”
A Mayberry that needed some tough love.

“We’re fortunate to have more than our fair share of assets,” says Williams. “But you have to maximize and leverage them.”

Candice Rivera, owner of Hazel’s cafe, a popular new downtown gathering place.
Candice Rivera, owner of Hazel’s cafe, a popular new downtown gathering place.

A Reason to Say ‘Yes’

After the city gathered citizen input and updated its master plan, Williams got up to speed on mechanisms entrepreneurs could use to help themselves – things like a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district, enterprise zone and historic building tax credits.

“Economic development is like an iceberg – 80 percent of it you can’t see,” he says. “But you have to put these structures into place.”

And you can’t stop there. A city needs to let people know what’s in the tool bag and how to use those tools, he says.
“We constantly ask ourselves how we can smooth the path for citizens who want to do good things,” says Williams. “Our motto is ‘Look for reasons to say Yes!’”

How? First, by connecting people to people.

“When someone is seriously considering a project such as a building renovation, we bring all the key players into a room,” he explains. “This takes some of the intimidation out of it. We say, ‘Here’s the building inspector. He’s a nice guy. Here’s his card. Now you know what he looks like, so call him with any questions.’ We do that with all of the key players. This makes things simpler for people as a project progresses.”

No project is too big or small to benefit from city assistance.

A small business named White Pelican operates near the riverbank behind Conover Square Mall, renting out paddle sport equipment to about 1,700 customers per year. When the owner couldn’t use the usual boat launch this year because the launch ramp was on private property, he considered not opening at all or moving elsewhere.

The volunteer group Oregon Together got involved and met with the mayor to explain the problem.

“Ken got the street department to move some boulders from an alternate area,” says Schuster. “The park district put in some gravel and now it’s a nice canoe launch, problem solved.” The owner kept his business and the city kept an asset intact.

In another example, the state was thinking of moving its Lee/Ogle County Department of Human Services (DHS) office from Oregon to Rock Falls, Ill., because its building was falling apart. Williams got wind of this and contacted Illinois Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) and Ogle County Board Chairman Kim Gouker and together they called Springfield.

“Springfield told me, ‘We’ll stay if you find us a better location.’ So we did,” says Williams.

He worked with the owner of a vacant book-binding building in Oregon’s industrial park. Today the newly remodeled building houses both the DHS office and commercial storage.

“The DHS is thrilled with it, and we prevented Oregon from losing 17 jobs,” says Williams. “In a town of 3,700 people, that’s a lot of jobs.”

The abandoned Settler’s Ridge subdivision was a burr in the city’s tail for years. In 2009, its developer ran out of money before he could bring utilities to its 50 lots. It had sewer, water and lovely paved streets, but no residents. The bank tried to auction it off, with no luck.

“It was a great place to teach your kid how to drive,” Williams jokes. “It just sat there for five years.”

Finally, he couldn’t stand it. When he became mayor, he called the bank president. “I said, ‘What can we do to get this going?’”

In the end, he worked out a deal in which the bank fronted the city $75,000 and a no-cost loan. The city then put in the utilities – including highly coveted fiber optic cable service it negotiated with Comcast – and thus enabled the bank to sell the subdivision to a local business, Martin & Co. They renamed it Stone Gate and the city waived more than $4,000 in impact and hook-up fees.

“Now these Stone Gate ‘smart homes’ are selling in the $200,000s and the city is collecting about $1,000 per rooftop in property tax per year,” says Williams. “It’s ideal for people who want very high-speed cable.”

The city hopes to attract tech-savvy telecommuters who appreciate the benefits of small-town living to Stone Gate. It wouldn’t have happened had Williams not picked up his phone.

“They can’t say ‘yes’ if you don’t ask,” he says. Sometimes, “the ask” is uncomfortable, but a leader needs to do it anyway.

When a building rented by a state driver’s license facility in Oregon fell into serious disrepair, Williams had a heart-to-heart with its aging owner.

“He knew the city would be on him soon for code violations, so he sold it to a local family,” says Williams. “They brought it back up to code. Now they not only rent it to the state but also lease space to a day care, to a boxing/fitness center and to people who need storage space. The building is living up to its potential now, and everyone is better off.”

The Heart of Town

Downtowns make a big impression on how a city is perceived. Oregon citizens are investing considerable time and treasure into theirs – and it shows.

“We’ve gone from having about 17 empty downtown storefronts five years ago to one or two vacancies in flux at any given time,” says Schuster. “And most of the people buying and renovating buildings are local people with a plan.”
Both commercial and residential property values have made a comeback.

“It’s a strong bounce-back,” says Williams.

He views the downtown as a never-ending puzzle to solve, with new trends taking root. For example, when the town lost its hardware store, the owner of Snyder’s Pharmacy saw an opportunity to expand and added an Ace Hardware under the same roof at 201 N. Fourth St.

“In small towns this is the new paradigm – a hardware/pharmacy,” he says.

Schuster recently purchased, gutted and renovated 307 W. Washington St. He leases the first floor to Candice Rivera, owner of Hazel’s Café. Patrons enjoy the high tin ceilings and vintage feel, while Schuster enjoys the efficiency of modern mechanicals, including solar panels on the roof.

Hazel’s Café shares an interior doorway with its neighbor, the Cork & Tap wine bar, in a vintage building purchased and restored by longtime Oregon florist Merlin Hagemann.

“Merlin and I used the same interior design company, so the spaces flow back and forth,” explains Schuster. “The second floor of Merlin’s building has a very nice gallery space, but his building has no room for a kitchen. So, when he has an event in the gallery, Hazel’s caters it.”

Hagemann offered Oregon resident Diana Weber some space in the backroom of Cork & Tap to kick off her home décor business, which specializes in hand-painted decorative signs. It was so successful that, in February, she relocated her business, Simply Home, to a storefront across the street.

Other new businesses include Hoppers Poppers, a gourmet popcorn and candy store at 108 N. Fourth St., and Chili Pepper Grill & Bar, 416 W. Washington St. The latter moved to a storefront after getting its start inside Conover Square Mall, a former piano factory on the river that’s a good incubator space for ambitious entrepreneurs and part-time business owners alike.

Williams has his eye on a vacant downtown movie theater he’d love to see re-opened for first-run movies. He’s also mulling ideas for the soon-to-be vacant Dollar Store.

“Is there a way to take that 8,000-square-foot store and make it into smaller spaces that would be easier to rent?” he muses.

Schuster speaks of identifying “bright spots” throughout the city – places where people gather and connect.

One is Village Bakery on Third Street, near city hall, with a cozy fireplace area where folks connect over baked goods, coffee, ice cream or lunch fare. It’s owned by Village of Progress, which exists to serve the developmentally disabled and employs such folks at the bakery. The nonprofit bought this former hardware store for $90,000 and renovated it for $300,000, with many materials and labor hours donated by citizens.

A different kind of bright spot – both figuratively and literally – is an alley located off Washington Street, known as The Arch. Oregon Together adopted it, cleaned it up, erected a lighted archway and brought in little bistro tables, where people gather.

Diana Weber opened her home decor shop, Simply Home, in downtown Oregon last year and moved to a larger space this year.
Diana Weber opened her home decor shop, Simply Home, in downtown Oregon last year and moved to a larger space this year.

“It’s a small thing, but it causes people to notice there’s something different here,” says Schuster. “And it’s one more invitation to linger downtown.”

The State of Illinois wants people to do more than linger. It wants businesspeople to transform upper levels of downtown buildings into apartments, as in the old days, and Williams thinks that’s a good idea.

“The more people living in and walking around a downtown, the better,” he says.

It’s all part of making the most of what you have, a common theme in Oregon. An abandoned drive-up bank structure with problematic underground storage tanks was a downtown eyesore until Williams got the Illinois Fire Marshal to issue an “abandon in place” order that makes the property usable again.

“Now we’re remodeling it to become a downtown public restroom,” he says. “It’s across the street from our farmers market. We asked some local banks for help and two of them gave us more than $8,000 each, no strings attached.”
Now the former eyesore will serve a public purpose.

You have to ask before someone can say “Yes.”

Looking Good

As people see things change for the better, they get excited.

“People across the city have become very activist-oriented,” says Williams. “They’re taking some risks and investing in their community. We see our role as collaborators.”

Meanwhile, the city has reviewed codes, tossed out some and better enforced those left on the books.

In surveys, citizens asked the city to make better use of its riverfront, so leaders earmarked a riverbank retail zone.
“The riverfront is for the people, so anyone who develops there has to leave public space between their building and the river,” Williams explains. “We got the zoning started. This will eventually tie into a new, accessible path that’s under construction now between the city and Black Hawk statue at Lowden State Park.”

The path is another asset made possible by partnership – the engineering study is paid jointly by city, county and park district.

The city has developed an official color scheme and beautification plan. Volunteer groups are erasing the worn-out look Oregon took on during years of languishment.

Years ago, stucco was applied wrongly to the Conover Square Mall building exterior. It began to fall off, causing an eyesore. A volunteer group called Hands On Oregon not only helped to repair it, but constructed an attractive American flag on the building.

Hanging baskets, planters and gardens burst with bloom throughout Oregon, most installed by the city and maintained by the park district. Planters display fanciful bicycle sculptures made by local artists, symbolizing the city’s love for outdoor recreation.

One trick that doesn’t cost the city a dime is to ask owners to fill vacant storefront windows with displays, says Williams.

“If you ask them, most are happy to do this and it builds vision for what the future can be,” he says. Again, you have to ask.

Schuster points to a bicycle fix-it station on a corner of the courthouse lawn. Its bicycle-shaped sculpture spells “Ogle.”

“Three individuals decided they wanted to provide this,” he says. “They got in touch with the sheriff and installed it, all on their own. That’s the energy we’re talking about.”

Nuts, Bolts and Volunteers

Oregon is run by a part-time mayor and four at-large, part-time commissioners, all non-partisan. The city employs about 18 people, including a nine-person police force and no city manager.

“You have to know what you can and can’t do for yourself in a small city,” says Williams. “We contract out a lot of services.”

The city relies heavily on volunteers, especially in a time of renaissance like this one. Williams figures he earns about 15 cents an hour, if you prorate his stipend by hours. He’s OK with that.

“We call ourselves well-meaning volunteers because that’s really what it amounts to,” he says. Seeing the city regain its health is his real reward.

“Our debt is now well under the limit for a city our size,” he says. “We do a lot of preventive maintenance and have put a camera through every sewer in town. We’ve rebuilt all the well houses. We use only 50 percent of our water reservoir capacity. Regional roads are improving. Route 2 from Oregon to Dixon is now under construction and IDOT will start on the Byron to Rockford segment in 2019. We’re very attractive for businesses because we have the city services they need, the sites, the roads, the TIF district in place, the enterprise zone on its way. And we offer a very good quality of life.”

But it’s the people of Oregon who inspire Williams’ confidence in the city’s future, because they made up their minds to write a happy ending to their own troubled story. It’s not the first time they’ve done this.

“When [Chicago attorney William] Heckman was ready to sell his land to the state, the state would only put in half of the money,” says Williams. “The people of this community put up the rest all by themselves, in order to preserve what’s now Lowden State Park. This was during World War II, when nothing was easy. That kind of Midwest ethic and spirit is still alive and well here.”