Forging a path toward the future, leaders in this Ogle County city are pushing their community forward with a number of inspiring projects. A visitor center is just the start.
Oregon, Ill., captivates visitors with its small-town charm and scenic beauty, but it also draws in many visitors as the government seat of Ogle County.
With its strategic location at the intersection of Illinois Route 2 and Illinois Route 64, where it’s close to the interstate, rail access, generous tax benefits and a thriving tourism industry, Oregon is also garnering attention as an attractive place to do business. City leaders are injecting new energy into Oregon’s business sector and are coming together to promote growth through a variety of programs and projects.
Recently, the Sarah Phelps Community Plaza, named for the wife of Oregon’s founder, John Phelps, celebrated its long-awaited ribbon cutting and is now officially open to the public.
“About five years ago, Mayor [Ken] Williams took a look at what was an empty space and had a vision to create a new public space,” says Darin DeHaan, Oregon’s city manager.
The space in question was a vacant drive-thru bank at Fifth and Washington streets whose previous occupant, Harvard Bank, had moved to a new location. Williams found partners to bring his vision to life.
“He partnered with Harvard Bank and Central Bank, who put in funds to purchase the property,” explains DeHaan. “The first phase was to put in a public restroom. It’s something that is a necessity for a tourist community.”
Phase two of the community plaza brought a number of local stakeholders to the table, including Oregon Together, a grassroots community planning group.
“They’re a fantastic group of civic-minded citizens,” says DeHaan. “We got to work on what was next for creating this green new space in an urban setting.”
That work included a major renovation of the building: converting the drive-thru into a walk-up window. The surrounding landscape was also given a facelift. The tree-lined plaza features both an indoor gathering space and outdoor seating, both of which can facilitate public events and gatherings downtown. Anyone who wants to use the space just needs to contact City Hall.
“Staff will help facilitate with anyone who calls and get them a key to the space,” says DeHaan.
“We’d love to see people utilizing it.”
Oregon’s new community space is just the starting point to this city’s forward-looking position.
Downtown is in the midst of a facelift, with refreshed properties and the arrival of new businesses causing visitors and residents to take notice.
“It’s really neat for our small community that we have some unique business coming in,” says DeHaan. “We recently worked with a developer on a space that had been empty for quite a few years, across from City Hall.”
The space at 118 N. Third St. has been filled by Mobel Furnishings, a store that offers a mix of quality inventory and bespoke products.
“There is a workshop in the back and a showroom in the front,” says DeHaan. “You can come in and there are items you can purchase off the shelf, or if you see something that you’d like in a different design or color, the business owners, Mark and Anne Nehrkorn, can custom make those items. It’s really unique.”
Community initiatives and involvement are key aspects of Oregon’s growth, and DeHaan says that prospective Oregon business owners are always welcome to pay a visit to see if the city might be a good fit.
“The biggest thing I would say is that we’re always at the table as a city,” he says. “We will help them connect to the people they need to connect with.”
DeHaan cites a number of incentives for new and unique businesses, including lease incentives offered through Oregon’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program.
“They could apply for up to $7,500 for their first year in existence to help offset their rent or lease cost,” he says. “We know that those first 12 months are key to having a successful business. There are a lot of expenses going out, so we created that through our TIF program to offset some of those initial costs.”
The City of Oregon established a TIF district in February 2017 to encourage private investment and business development in a zone that stretches along the banks of the Rock River and encompasses Oregon’s east and south sides. This economic development tool is used in many cities to stimulate growth and investment, particularly when it comes to rehabbing older buildings in areas with less investment.
“We’ve allocated TIF funds for a lot of that redevelopment and to get a lot of old spaces back into circulation,” says DeHaan.
Over the coming year, city leaders expect to start revisiting their Capital Improvements Plan (CIP), a formal outline that prioritizes spending and strategizes future projects.
“I think we accomplished a lot of things on our previous plan,” says DeHaan. “Now, we want to take another good analysis and see what the community needs.”
This may well include housing, which has gotten a recent boost from Hvarre Development and its new Trestle Ridge townhome development on the city’s south side.
“We’re always trying to look at some innovative ways to spur the housing market here,” says DeHaan. “We’re hopeful that the CIP will tie into those future visions of growth. Oregon is a safe and inviting community surrounded by endless natural resources and beautiful scenery.”
He’s also hopeful to tie Oregon’s fate to the growing trend of remote work. With the growing ability of people to work from home in the past few years, many former urbanites are leaving the city for greener pastures, preferring to work in a more pastoral environment, as opposed to a skyscraper in a city.
“Following COVID, I started getting calls from people who were interested in coming out here,” DeHaan says.
To accommodate these remote workers, DeHaan has been working with internet provider Frontier to beef up Oregon’s capabilities.
“They’ve already started the process over the past couple of weeks,” he says. “It all comes back to that infrastructure, making sure we have high-speed internet availability for anyone who wants to work from home.”
Another bright spot is the creation of the Ogle County Economic Development Corporation (OCEDC), an initiative that brings the county’s municipal governments together to drive economic development. Several surrounding communities have already bought in, including Byron, Polo, Mt. Morris and Stillman Valley. Officials from the County have also joined in, and DeHaan says other communities are looking to join. The public-private partnership will serve as a one-stop shop for stakeholders in the county to coordinate programs, services and economic development policies for the entire county, something DeHaan is optimistic about.
“I see big things on the horizon as part of that,” says DeHaan. “I always say that what’s good for our community is good for Ogle County and all of its communities and vice versa That’s one of the most recent developments that’s going to put us back on the map.”