Tuscola leaders ponder future of 2 programs

Tuscola leaders ponder future of 2 programs

TUSCOLA – Tuscola community and business leaders may meet within the next several weeks to ponder the future of the city's Main Street and Economic Development programs.

Tuscola Main Street was an organization that provided the city's downtown businesses with long-term management and direction as well as access to professional design and marketing assistance.

In recent years, Main Street renovated a rundown building at 124 W. Sale St. and converted it into a Curves for Women fitness center; built a new clock tower to replace one that burned down many years ago; and developed an adopt-a-flower-box program all along Main Street and the downtown area.

Tuscola Economic Development is a program that works to promote existing businesses and to lure new businesses to the community.

In recent years, the program helped make Tuscola a pilot community for the AmerenCIPS Location One program, developed an initiative to increase business development on U.S. 36, completed and maintained a Tuscola Web site, and helped raise money for the Tuscola Airport.

Kathy Rhodes, the director of the two city programs for the past three years, resigned in January.

Rhodes said funding restrictions for the two programs was the primary reason for her resignation.

Last year, the city provided $30,000 for economic development and $5,000 for Main Street. Private businesses had been contributing about $15,000 a year to the two programs, but the slowdown in the economy caused those donations to decrease considerably, Rhodes said.

"For economic development projects to succeed, you need money to pay for consulting work, environmental studies and other costs," she said. "Tuscola Economic Development no longer had the money to do things like that. It isn't a good thing when you run out of money and nothing new is forthcoming; it's tough."

In addition, Gov. Blagojevich has cut the budget for the statewide Main Street organization from $1 million a year to $75,000 a year, meaning fewer resources for the Tuscola Main Street program.

Tuscola City Administrator Drew Hoel, who is temporarily handling Rhodes' duties, said one possible solution could be an alliance or merger of the Main Street and/or Economic Development programs with the private Tuscola Chamber of Commerce.

Hoel said the chamber is active in planning festivals and special events.

Hoel said he anticipates city and chamber officials will meet later this year to discuss the possibility of merging the Main Street, Economic Development and chamber functions.

"We're at a crossroads for the future of the Tuscola business community," Hoel said. "I think there is a more efficient model than having separate Main Street, Economic Development and chamber organizations. We're trying to sort through the options now."

Hoel said the options include hiring a full-time city employee to replace Rhodes, have one of the nonprofit organizations hire the replacement employee or merging the organizations.

Hoel said having separate organizations can give the impression to outsiders that Tuscola has a divided business community, which could discourage new development.

"People don't understand why they are being asked to join all three or contribute to all three," Hoel said. "I would love to see Main Street and Economic Development become subcommittees that focus on specific issues under the umbrella of the chamber of commerce."

Chamber President Dedee Hoel (Drew Hoel's sister-in-law) said Tuscola residents have already begun asking her about functions formerly provided by the other organizations.

"People have been calling me asking about who will take over the flower boxes on Main Street, for example," Dedee Hoel said. "We need to get together and find out who will be taking over which responsibilities."

Dedee Hoel said no meetings have yet been set to discuss the issue.

"Until we meet over the issue, it is difficult for me to comment on what might happen in the future," she said.

Rhodes said she wouldn't recommend combining the three organizations.

"Each group has a different focus, and it is difficult to succeed when your focus is divided in different directions," she said.

Rhodes said she has accepted a new job as executive director of Illini Community Development, a Newman-based organization that serves Vermillion, Champaign, Douglas, Clark and Edgar counties.

You can reach Tim Mitchell at (217) 351-5366 or via e-mail at tmitchel@news-gazette.com.

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