By NICK MARIANO
MT. VERNON —
Downtown Mt. Vernon hardly looks like it did 100 years ago, evident by the dozens of photos shared at this year’s first Downtown Lowdown on Thursday.
If members of the Downtown Mt. Vernon Development Corporation have their sway, change will continue as part of city and civic leaders’ revitalization efforts.
As Cortez Hodges puts it, there is a shift occurring in the area, and he wants to be part of it.
“I want to put my word in and have input on the direction we take,” said Hodges, a member of the promotions committee for the Development Corp., the organization responsible for Downtown Lowdown.
This is the second year for the series with two more sessions to be held: Nov. 1 at the 5th Appellate Courthouse and Dec. 6 at the Granada Center for the Performing Arts. Each session begins at 9 a.m.
The series is held for those interested in learning more about both the downtown area’s history and future.
Hodges, a salesperson at Once Upon a Lifetime Photography and a ceramic artist, says he sees the revitalization as an opportunity to make downtown a home for artists. The more people in the area, whether for work, recreation or the nightlife, the more opportunity artists will have to showcase their work.
He said he is considering opening an art supply store in the area to further encourage that shift.
“It wasn’t there when I was in high school,” he said. “Twenty years from now I’d like to see it become a nice place for my kids to hang out in. There is a shift taking place in Mt. Vernon and I want to be a part of it.”
That shift is hardly the first and unlikely to be the last.
Those at Thursday’s Lowdown had the opportunity to see what downtown Mt. Vernon once looked like thanks to dozens of photos provided by Terry Sharp, a downtown attorney and former Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce president.
He was joined by John Howard of the Jefferson County Historical Society to describe the 1912 photos. Howard was given copies of the pictures about 27 years ago and has since saved them on a flash drive for various presentations.
Horses pulling buggies filled with coal down brick streets; pipework that is today being replaced, heavily tree lined streets many with different names than today, and buildings some of which are still standing and others lost whether by fire or other reasons.
Sharp said the source of the photos is unknown though it is believed they were taken by a power company that provided steam-generated heat to many buildings from underground as a byproduct of generating power.
He doesn’t have any firm plans for the photos but will likely turn them over to the Historical Society at some point, he said.
“This is the building that put me through college,” Howard said of the Howard and Casey grocery store building at one point during the presentation.
Other “vibrant” businesses included Montgomery Ward’s with its five levels of merchandise, and an opera house, Sharp said.
“They all burned down 25 years ago,” he added.
David Eadie, chairman of the organization committee of the Downtown Corp., said he has seen significant changes in the area during the last 10 years because of building remodeling and other development.
He added that when he moved to the area many of the buildings were vacant though occupied by people who were homeless.
“It’s just been a beautiful transition for downtown Mt. Vernon. There’s been a big change in the people you see downtown in addition to how the buildings have been reclaimed,” he said.
Mt. Vernon Councilman Dennis McEnaney, former regional director of the Southern Illinois District for the Illinois Power Co., said he was interested to learn more about the city’s history.
“I think that the foundation of revitalizing is where you came from. It just brings a lot of pride when you say, ‘OK, this is where the city came from,’ and it gives strength to your future growth,” he said.
And in another hundred years, downtown enthusiasts may likely be saying the same thing about today.