Reporter’s Notebook: Downtown Decatur Development

In my recent Road Trip story about Decatur, I spent some time in the city’s downtown area. Odd fact: the city has two Main Streets, although no one could tell me why. It is also the site of Abraham Lincoln’s first “official” political speeches. The news everyone’s excited about in downtown Decatur, though, is ADM’s consolidation of some of its operations from around the city into one office building downtown:

Rodney Powell, owner of Robbie's Grill (Niala Boodhoo)

It’s one of the hottest days of the year in Decatur. So the lRobbie’s Grill on Merchant Street in downtown Decatur isn’t as packed as it usually is at lunchtime, owner Rodney Powell says, even though nearly every table is full.

Powell was “born, raised and baptized” in Decatur, he says. He’s also earned the unofficial title “The Mayor of Merchant Street” for his efforts to bring more people downtown.

That’s why Powell is thrilled that Archer Daniels Midland Co. is bringing 300 to 400 more workers downtown soon as it consolidates its IT, audit and accounting personnel into the Reynolds Building downtown.

“I am a fan of anybody moving anybody into downtown,” he said.  “It’s definitely better for restaurant owners like myself – the more the merrier.”

Powell has been working to hold events Saturday night once a month on Merchant Street, to bring bands in from Chicago and have a place for families to gather.

(Food note: Powell makes excellent soups. All the recipes are in his head. It was at least 95 degrees the day I had lunch there, and his cold borscht hit the spot.)

Downtown Decatur statue commemorating our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln (Niala Boodhoo)

The city of Decatur is working on re-routing truck traffic outside of downtown, redesigning street scapes to make space for outdoor cafes, and working on a redevelopment of its lakefront as well, Craig Coll, of  Decatur’s Economic Development Corp., said.

On a tour we took around the city, Coil told me there aren’t many vacant buildings anywhere downtown. Many downtown workers work for one of Decatur’s largest non-manufacturing employers, Decatur Memorial Hospital, which employs about 2,000 people.

But it’s clear, to me at least, that the downtown lacks a vibrant, walking group of working people. That’s what the EDC is hoping ADM will bring.

“I’m really optimistic about the future of our community,” he said. “We’re kind of at that turning point where things are going in a positive direction and we’re laying the foundation for the future of the community.”


4 Replies to “Reporter’s Notebook: Downtown Decatur Development”

  1. Cool. So refreshing to hear a positive report about my hometown. The hit sustained by manufacturing over the last couple decades or so has hit Decatur hard. I’ve been away for over 20 years and don’t get a chance to visit much, and I was surprised to hear of the relatively low unemployment rate, as in the past Decatur has definitely struggled. I’ve always rooted for the downtown area to find a way to be revived, and there are indeed some charming restaurants and shopping holding out hope. I’m so encouraged by the news of ADM consolidating office operations downtown. There has always been good potential there, but downtown suffered a blow when the mall was built just outside the north boundary of the city back in the late 70s, a story shared by many other communities. Thanks for shining a positive light on Illinois’ own Beantown (that’s soy, for the uninitiated). I’m privileged to be living in Michigan, but I do love me some prairie! Miss that big sky! 

  2. As for the “odd fact” that you mention in your intro, I too would like to know the origin for this. You’re right, it is unusual. The two Main Streets, however, run perpendicular to each other and, if my memory is correct, they divide the south from north and east from west for city addresses, which is actually convenient and made sense when I was growing up there.

  3. We spoke with the Macon County History Museum and Prairie Village. They didn’t have an immediate answer, but we hope to hear back from them and we’ll update you.

  4. Decatur used to have an electric trolley system to carry passengers to and from downtown Decatur. Sitting in the middle of the intersection of Main and Main was the Transfer House, a building that provided shelter for those waiting for a trolley. The Transfer House, while no longer in the middle of the street, still stands and serves as a symbol for Decatur, IL. I’m not sure if this is the reasoning for two streets named Main, it would have served as a means of finding ones way to downtown a little easier since all you had to do was find a Main street and follow it towards the Transfer House and catching a trolley would be as simple as making your way to the Transfer House to hop on.

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