Is Galesburg worth saving?

What can Galesburg, Illinois do to not only beat death, but reinvent its own self?

Galesburg is exploding with potential even while it is decaying. What can be done to both stop its decline and build its economy? These are two different battles that the town must fight in order to get back up. Is Galesburg worth the effort?

The first battle is to stop the decay of the city; the loss of the things that make Galesburg unique to this part of Illinois, the loss of irreplaceable buildings by allowing them to crumble into disrepair, and the evident indifference to this decay by its citizens and town leaders. This must be addressed before you can tackle the second objective, attracting businesses to Galesburg’s economy. Who the hell would be interested in Galesburg as a destination for their business and its people when Galesburg seems to be on the edge of self destruction?

Stop the decay.

I grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, and have always thought of it as a town of great homes and great people. When I was a young kid, we lived on North Prairie Street in one of the enormous pre-Civil War homes that line the streets in that part of town. The streets were brick, there was a sidewalk in front, and at one time, elm trees lined the way. It seemed at the time that my brother and I owned the neighborhood. We rode our bikes everywhere; the neighbors knew who we were and we knew them. If we got out of line, my parents could expect a phone call from one of them. We shopped downtown at Sears, OT Johnson, Gale Ward, etc. I saw Star Wars at the Orpheum Theater. I enjoyed my childhood in this town. My education was solid, and I had a great time growing up.

I left Galesburg after college as many of my friends did because the jobs were somewhere else: Peoria or the Quad Cities, St Louis or Chicago, Texas or California. I’ve visited Galesburg just about every other year since I moved away in 1987, and have seen through a series of snapshots some changes that the town has gone through in just 15 years. Some more of the buildings downtown have been razed and replaced with someone’s idea of modern architecture. Some more of the storefronts downtown and in other places have been made into bars or taverns, a new growth industry in this part of the Midwest. At the far edge of town, the mall becomes more and more empty as a new Wal-mart opens. All of the lumber and hardware stores closed shortly after Lowe’s put its new store across from Wal-mart.

Among other things, Galesburg has suffered from an identity crisis, and has been torn: which is it going to be…either a small town with a certain inherent charm, or a small city that is up to date with other small cities. For the record, I vote for small town, have you been to the other small cities, lately? They, too, have lost there charm, and are never going to become a Moline, Rockford, or Champaign. Regardless of the identity Galesburg chooses, it still haven’t set a solid plan in place to follow to get it out of this death spiral that will one day see the end of the town I love.

Galesburg has lost or torn down some great buildings, most in the center of town. The old library was a very strong, classic building, destroyed by fire in 1958 and replaced by weak substitute. A majestic high school was abandoned and eventually destroyed by fire in 1965. Its replacement is a hideous building at the edge of town–where was the sense in that? The list is long and sad, including multiple railroad depots, hotels, an old post office, many stores. Some of these buildings were some of the best architecture of the time, regardless of the city. Now, everyone knows that not all buildings are worth the cost of renovation, not everything can be saved. But the replacements, if any, have been pale comparisons to the original. This is what Galesburg is becoming, as far as its architecture goes, because of the decisions it has made for the replacements of these buildings. And we keep on building ugly buildings! The police/fire building does nothing to instill confidence in our city or its protectors. Someone made the decision to build not only that abomination, but many others when we should have been reinvesting in the future of the city of Galesburg. The decisions that leaders of Galesburg make regarding architecture should be historic.


Clean it up.

Lets face it… no company is going to relocate its resources and its people to a dump. East Main Street by no means gives a good first impression, but unfortunately, that’s where most new visitors will get off the highway and head into town. It needs some attention, and quickly. Galesburg has fallen into the trendy traps of "beautification" in its past, including putting up new or modern façades on the downtown buildings that are downright hideous, adding those little brick outlets for trees on main street, etc. Let’s clean it up. The Burg has some great looking buildings under all of that junk… let’s show it.

Make Galesburg attractive. Make it quaint. Give it charm. Give it identity. What is your impression of Galesburg? My favorite part of town besides the historic downtown is the area of Prairie/Cherry/Broad/Cedar streets from the tracks north to Sandburg drive. The homes are grand, reminiscent of a time when all towns were the same size, and all had the potential to become Chicago or Cleveland. The citizens of Galesburg of that time knew what they wanted for the city, what they wanted Galesburg to be. The charm and identity of that area is also leaking away as the brick streets are paved or patched with a crazy quilt of concrete and asphalt, and the large homes are divided into inadequate apartments, but you see what I mean.

Don’t fall for the propaganda that housing is a steal in Galesburg. Of course it is! It looks like a sinking ship, and who wants to buy part of a sinking ship? People have to have a reason to buy a home in Galesburg other than the price. There has to be a job and a life to go with the house.


Small town vs. big town–which is it? Whatever you decide, make it worthy. Become known for something outstanding on a national level. Let’s take education, for instance. Say you decide that the teachers in Galesburg are going to be the best in the country. If that is the case, develop groundbreaking measuring devises for the teachers, pay them more than anywhere else in the country, test pilot programs in the schools, open the schools to out-of-state boarders, charging them tuition as private schools do, start a prep school or a military school. Go out on a limb. Make history. People will flood into town to put their kids in your schools.

The city needs to spend some money to do things like this, and it’s a catch-22, isn’t it? No one will come to town unless we spend some money to fix it up, but we won’t have any money to spend until some one comes to town to be taxed. So, make the plan. Hire only the experts. Save your pennies. Start with the heart of Galesburg and work outwards. Stick to the plan, make progress. Inform people of the progress, good or bad. Fire the experts if they don’t do what they are supposed to do. Following are a few ideas that are just me, thinking outside of the box.

Stop building ugly buildings. Make something historic. How many Butler buildings does one city need on Henderson Street? Every new building must have a permit. Can’t someone enforce a deed restriction of some sort about what building materials it can be constructed with, what design it should follow? This is tough love, kid. Make Galesburg beautiful again.

Build things in the center of town: a park, a pool, a new theater, something, and make it grand. (Don’t build a "rec. center", no one ever goes to them. There may be a rec. center downtown now that no one goes to.) The main thing that will attract outsiders to Galesburg is the atmosphere. Make it centralized and available to the majority of people in town. Build a nice pool–have you seen that mess at what they used to call Research? Why didn’t someone tear that down? The YMCA should be ashamed of itself for building at the edge of town where disadvantaged folks cannot get to or lose interest in going that far to get there. The country clubs do that kind of thing. The Y is not a country club, nor should they ever put on airs that they are. It too is an ugly building with no character, no grace and no form. Speaking of that, why is the high school way on that side of town? It should be in the heart of the city, also. And it should be damned impressive.

Get the Galesburg people enrolled in the idea that there is a plan, and then inform them what it is. Hire billboards. Tell them to mow the lawns, paint the house, get the car out of the front yard if necessary. Let them know that company is coming, they should act accordingly. If the police are perceived as bullies, be prepared to change the police. Get those voters involved. Better yet, ask them if they have any ideas- go to their homes, their churches, and some of those bars on Main Street to ask them. Listen well. Write it all down.




Make it a Destination.

Now the second battle can commence: attracting companies to be part of our economy, our community, our lives. Again, this involves a plan that entails advertising Galesburg as nurturing home for these companies’ people, which it will be after you’ve gotten this far in you campaign. Following are a few notes- just thinking on paper- of what Galesburgers can try to do to seem more attractive to outsiders.

Find some way to keep the home grown talent in town. Why does everyone leave town right after high school or college? All the efforts so far are to attract others to Galesburg to increase our economy, but what about our own kids? The more and diverse industries that Galesburg can attract and retain, the better the prospect of keeping our own home grown talent.

Know our heritage, know our strengths: downtown, the Colleges, the railroad, the brick streets, etc are all part of the city’s history and we should extol their virtues. The size of the town (not too big, not too small) is enviable. The central location within the region is undeniable.

Do something about the mall. It’s a sad and lonely place in there. Offer the few stores left there some premium space downtown. I know there will be hurt feelings involved in getting rid of it, but can Galesburg’s economy support two or more shopping areas? The mall has about 25% occupancy, and cannot be a profitable venture anymore. Wal-mart is already killing you on that side of town. Can you imagine what Downtown would be like with a Sears, JCPenney, Bergner’s, and a Hibbett’s?




1. Galesburg will soon have an enormous amount of vacant warehouse space available. Make Galesburg a hub for the nation’s retailers who may need new distribution centers that are centrally located. This includes retailers like grocery stores, sporting goods stores (Dick’s and Gaylan’s, both from Pittsburg, Sports Authority from Denver, Gander Mountain from Minnesota, all of whom are expanding throughout the country), toy companies, dollar stores (explosive growth in the retail industry). Think of the location of Gburg, right in between Chicago and St Louis, between NY and LA, good roads out of town and rail possibilities abound. This is a very real and very good possibility. Some of these retailers would build state of the art facilities within the buildings in Galesburg, and hire hundreds of people. If you attract one or two of these, and they like their accommodations, word will spread. There are lots of industries out there that need big buildings with cheap rent in a central location with easy access.

2. Spare no feelings attracting business to the burg. This is battle. Get tax breaks for those companies. Get the state to help you lure them here. Invite the Governor to the city to show him/her you’re seriously motivated and are doing something about it. Enroll the governor in your plan and utilize his office in your endeavors.

3. Make Downtown Galesburg an outlet mall. A true destination market less than an hour from Peoria and the Quad Cities, three hours from Chicago and St Louis. Spend some serious cash to get DT looking good. This means getting the ugly fake store fronts off the buildings and doing some serious repair and renovation. Put brick streets back in on Main and some of the arteries. Put a cable car back in. Make it fun. Advertise like hell and make it work. Bring in the best stores and restaurants to really make it attractive. Hire an architectural firm that is highly knowledgeable about malls, outdoor shopping centers.

4. Attract University of Illinois, Illinois State University, University of Chicago, etc to open a campus in town. This is not an insult to Knox College or Carl Sandburg College, nor is it a statement that those schools are not enough. It is merely another opportunity to offer extended education, and to pull skilled labor into Galesburg. Can you imagine having a University of Illinois- Galesburg branch? In the education field, that’s star power.

5. Make some residential space above the stores downtown. How cool would it be to live in an apartment that has that round tower bay window in the corner on Kellogg St.? This has been done on a small scale on Seminary St. and seems to be popular. Its quite cosmopolitan, and done right, can help people to choose Galesburg as an intriguing place to live.

My wish is that Galesburg, Illinois can become a vibrant, lively and prosperous community again. Yes, it’s worth saving. I’m hoping that some of the leaders of Galesburg can start to think outside the box, elicit the help of others, make the town stand out. If they won’t, get new leaders. It will take a concerted effort to get this going and keep it going. The alternative is to do nothing and remain locked in this death spiral.

Best wishes on Galesburg’s future,

Dan Vacek

Houston, TX