Libertyville, Illinois

Illinois | 1997 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 10/16/2008

"If you have pride in your town, you want to do something about your town. If a sense of community means anything to you, downtown needs to be the focus," Dan Mayworm, entrepreneur, Libertyville, Ill.

Libertyville was known as Independence Grove in the late 18th century, when Native Americans camped around four nearby lakes and the mineral springs that bubble up throughout the area.  When a post office was established in the 1820s, Libertyville began its evolution into a summer home for the aristocracy of Chicago, less than 30 miles away. A former home to luminaries such as actor Marlon Brando, statesman Adlai Stevenson, and architect David Adler, Libertyville is a classic "streetcar suburb" of the Windy City – both a bedroom suburb and a self-contained community, centered by a newly vibrant Main Street district. 

A reflection of its name, the Main Street district of Libertyville (pop. 19,200) is a Midwestern dollop of living Americana – a place with its own sense of self, where people still stroll the streets on a Saturday night, and where the tailor, the hometown bakery, and the vacuum cleaner repair shop are shoulder to shoulder with gourmet coffee vendors and a microbrewery.

"There's a mountain of retail space between here and Chicago.  We sit smack-dab in the middle of regional centers, mega-shopping centers, strip centers, and malls," says Dan Timm, executive director of Main Street Libertyville, Inc. Timm calls it "sprawl-land."  Lifelong resident and entrepreneur Dan Mayworm calls it Libertyville's strength. 

"The 'collar communities' around Chicago are typified by strips, with none having a real downtown.  Consequently you lose the community perspective – that sense of being a community that we have here," Mayworm says.

As early as 1960, Libertyville embarked on a series of revitalization efforts, including an ill-advised program called "Operation Face-Lift," which masked much of the district's stunning architecture behind poured concrete and metal siding. The efforts failed to energize Libertyville's core. Then, in 1982 Libertyville launched a civic revolution with its Main Street program. It was not an overnight success.  Instead, the four-point approach advocated by the National Trust Main Street Center fueled a steady yet dynamic comeback.

Drawing on the rich history of Libertyville's Main Street corridor, Milwaukee Avenue, downtown leaders and civic officials determined to capitalize on the village's uniquely mid-American Main Street style. 

They set in motion a bold system of tax increment financing to plow tax revenues back into revitalization effort – a successful twist on a strategy typically used for industrial development. Unattractive "slipcover facades" were removed.  A wealth of historic Victorian storefronts resurfaced.  "We now have old buildings beautifully restored," says Mayworm. "It gives us character, substance, and identity."

By 1991, Main Street Libertyville had launched three successful promotional events, including the first HarvestFest to attract hundreds of festival goers to the heart of downtown.  It invented an "Out to Lunch" weekly event to bring businesspeople and families downtown at midday, pulling life into town at a time when little else was happening.  "That really put us on the map," says Timm.

Main Street formed a Downtowners club, produced a downtown guide, and established a loan pool program for renovating buildings within the tax increment financing district.  And they sought publicity for every effort.  Such "free advertising," much of it in the area's five daily newspapers, helped promote and retain downtown businesses and recruit volunteers and donors.

Revitalization pioneers sought to capitalize on a universe of potential business executives who made their home nearby. Libertyville is also flush with "location-neutral" businesses – entrepreneurial enterprises that could exist anywhere but choose Libertyville for its hometown feel and quality of life.

"Some of the most successful [business operators] we've recruited are people who?ve changed careers or who always wanted to do this or that," Timm says.  "They were the kind who would give customers service and care and were willing to experiment with non-mall locations. They were willing to compete."

To cultivate them, the Main Street Libertyville program offers networking and countless consulting opportunities for start-up businesses to find guidance, direction, and support.  "We acted like the yellow pages – if you've got a question, call the [Main Street] office," Timm explains.

The resurgence of the downtown business district has been so successful that the biggest problem is an absence of available retail space. Timm believes Libertyville's competitive atmosphere was and is instrumental to its success. "A strong market cuts both ways:  there's a lot of competition, but at same time it’s a very good market. A key to the whole sprawl question may be . . . to be able to swim with the current."

Downtown properties, instead of slipping into an all too familiar pattern of urban decay, are skyrocketing in value.  Between 1986 and 1995, the value of Libertyville's downtown properties climbed 78 percent, up nearly $21 million.  At the same time, the tax increment financing district reaped a net growth of nearly $204,000, a 77 percent increase in municipal sales tax revenues.  And for the $1.2 million dollars in contributions to the Main Street program, Libertyville has reaped about $14 million in private investment.  Libertyville's believers credit the Main Street approach. 

"We're proof it does work," says Mayworm, who advocates use of the Main Street program to other communities. Mayworm says the entire program of attention to design, organization, promotion, and economic restructuring must be applied simultaneously.  "And that's where I make my strongest pitch," he says.  "Don't try to do shortcuts . . . use the entire Main Street program."


For more information contact:

National Trust Main Street Center