Rejuvenated Uptown Normal enriches campus life

by Mary Ann Ford

When Brian Simpson was a graduate student at Illinois State in the early 1980s, he had a daily routine that revolved around Downtown Normal, starting with breakfast at the Welcome Inn on North Street.

“Jane and Stella were the best waitresses,” he said. “They knew my regular order—two eggs over easy with toast. If I was feeling flush, I’d have hash browns.”

For lunch Simpson would get a $1 bowl of chili at Big Rudy’s Too on West Beaufort Street. Supper was at The Galery–later changed to the Gallery–a couple doors away.

“Spike would have pizza for $1 if it was fresh, 75 cents if it wasn’t,” Simpson said of The Galery. “If it was days’ old, it was 50 cents. I ate 50 cent slices of pizza a lot.”

Like many art majors, he also hit The Galery for its nighttime entertainment and camaraderie. “I was alone and didn’t know anybody,” he said. “I’d go in The Galery and have a beer. I made friends that way.”

There were two other popular Downtown bars: Rocky’s attracted the disco crowd, while Shanigans was more of a sports bar.

When he was in the mood for a movie, Simpson often went to the Normal Theater. He remembers seeing the first run of A Christmas Story there. It was a wet day and after the movie, he went to Garcia’s Pizza at Watterson Place to dry his feet by the fireplace.

Downtown Normal had virtually everything including two pharmacies, Randall’s variety store, the Sock Store, Watkin’s Jewelry, The Garlic Press, Pines Smartwear, McReynolds menswear, Greta’s Fabrics, Camera Craft, and the Velvet Freeze ice cream shop.

“Downtown is full of memories,” Simpson said. “I grew up in Central Illinois and felt at home the moment I came here.”

“Even alumni who left Illinois State recently will be amazed by the transition in Uptown Normal.”

Simpson still calls the Twin Cities home, and his life continues to revolve around the newly renovated “Uptown” Normal. He owns Babbitt’s Books on East Beaufort Street, and serves as president of the Uptown Normal Business Association.

The Normal City Council officially renamed Downtown Normal to Uptown Normal in March of 2007, saying it better reflected the revitalized central business district created from a redevelopment plan adopted by the City Council in 2001.

While the Welcome Inn and Jane and Stella are gone, college students, professors, and townies now go to the Garlic Press Café, which opened at the former Welcome Inn space in 2005.

The Galery and Big Rudy’s Too are also only memories. The building that housed both was razed and a new one built by Twin City developer Harry Fuller. Firehouse Pizza & Pub opened on the first floor.

Fuller renovated the Shanigans building next door. It is now home to offices on the second floor, with Emack & Bolio’s ice cream shop on the first floor. Fuller also renovated the former Odd Fellows Lodge across the street at 126 E. Beaufort Street, and attracted a popular Irish pub called Maggie Miley’s.

Twin City developer Jeff Tinervin razed the building at Beaufort and Linden streets, creating there a new building that offers luxury apartments on the top floors and Cosi’s restaurant on the first floor. Another Illinois State graduate, Ryan Fiala ’04, M.B.A. ’06, renovated 123 E. Beaufort and opened a new restaurant called D.P. Dough.

Rocky’s was torn down also, making way for the Children’s Discovery Museum, which opened in 2004 and now attracts thousands of visitors annually. Simpson moved Babbitt’s Books from 104 W. North Street to 119 E. Beaufort Street—home of Appletree Records in the 1980s—as part of the Uptown redevelopment plan.

The town bought the North Street building and several others with plans to attract a developer to create a mixed-use building along the new Constitution Boulevard, which goes from a new traffic circle in the center of Uptown north to College Avenue. The mixed-use building is not yet a reality.

The traffic circle also uses land that used to be home to Abe’s Carmelcorn, where Simpson would buy Gummy Bears. There’s a community gathering place in the center of the traffic circle. It has a circulating water feature and grassy sitting area.

Up North Street toward campus, Other Ports is gone and in its place is Medici restaurant. The tree that grew behind the building was salvaged and is part of the restaurant’s inside décor.

Other buildings along North Street—including Campus Town Supply, the old Normal State Bank building, and Victor’s Tailors—have been or are in the process of being renovated to bring back their original facade.

The Normal Post Office remains, but there have been a lot of other changes in that block of North Street. Subconscious, which Simpson said “had the best view of the Normal Theater,” closed years ago. It was home to a variety of businesses until it was torn down last spring so that construction could start on a new commercial/apartment building by JSM Development of Champaign.

The project also occupies the land of the former nearly 100-year-old University Christian Church. The church held its last service in March of 2008. The building was not accessible and would have required a costly renovation that the aging church membership decided it couldn’t undertake.

The JSM project will once again bring a pharmacy to Uptown Normal. CVS plans to open in August and occupy much of the first floor of the five-story building. Illinois State is leasing out the second floor. The other three floors will have apartments.

Across North Street is a new $75 million, 228-room Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, which opened in the fall of 2009. It occupies all the land that used to be Watterson Place and the former Citizens Bank. The bank relocated to Broadway and College Avenue.

The hotel includes Jesse’s Grille and Caffenia’s Café. The conference center took advantage of its proximity to the Normal Theater and created an indoor entrance from the center to the theater.

The Marriott is attached by skywalk to one of two new Uptown parking decks. The other deck is adjacent to Heartland Bank and Trust Co., which sits at the top of the hill on College Avenue, next to the Ecology Action Center.

Back on North Street, the Paintin’ Place, which was next to the Normal Theater, closed in 2005 and was remodeled for a Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches restaurant. Jimmy John’s moved from the building Tinervin razed at Beaufort and Linden streets. The old Velvet Freeze site is now The Coffee Hound, which opened in 2006.

The changes have been applauded and appreciated by the ISU community, and leave graduates who return for a campus visit in awe.

“Even alumni who left Illinois State recently will be amazed by the transition in Uptown Normal,” Illinois State University President Al Bowman said. “The addition of the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, new restaurants, and revitalized businesses have made Uptown Normal a destination for students, faculty, staff members, and alumni.”

The change has impressed even those who were once dubious, including Simpson. He admits he had some reservations with the town’s redevelopment plan at first, but now knows his fear came from the “uncertainty” of the future. “Once it was certain, it was just a matter of patience,” he said. “It turned out better than I ever, ever thought it would.

“The way Downtown was going, several people would have moved anyway or gone out of business. It was going downhill, there were problems,” he said. “Downtown was ruined.”

Now he sees Uptown Normal going the direction business owners only hoped it could when they met in the late 1980s.

“We talked about what we’d like to see Downtown: sit-down restaurants, a pharmacy, a grocery store, and a place to drink, but not big saloons. We wanted coffeehouses and we have several. Things we looked for in the late 1980s we have, including more office space and more residences,” Simpson said. “There’s a variety, not just little boutiques. You can bring your family and divide up and go do what you want to do. It’s like a mall, but more individual. We’ve returned to where a vibrant Downtown area should be.”
And there’s more on the way.

The town recently received a $22 million federal grant to build a new transportation center west of the Children’s Discovery Museum on Beaufort Street. It will serve Amtrak, as well as city and intrastate buses and taxies.

The transition has been exciting and satisfying for Normal officials, including City Manager Mark Peterson, who noted that development of a vibrant Uptown was the City Council’s ultimate goal.

“The vision was to create an exciting and dynamic retail/business district that would be a place people wanted to come and spend time,” Peterson said. “The presence of Illinois State was a critical piece to the puzzle. People like the campus environment. There’s a certain excitement that comes with being in close proximity to a campus. It offers a unique flavor you don’t get in another business district.”