URBANA — Ride down Philo Road in the southeast part of town and what was once a sprawling commercial district for the city isn't so today.
The Sunnycrest Shopping Center has experienced vacancies galore, and just to the south, the County Market store closed this summer. Farther south down the street, the Southgate Shopping Center, which used to be centerpieced by IGA and later Ruler Foods, is an eyesore.
But talk to city administrators and business owners in the Philo Road district and they'll tell you that things are looking up and the once-proud center of commercial activity is trending up.
"There's quite a lot happening in the Philo Road area, much more than in recent years," said Brandon Boys, Urbana's economic development manager.
Planet Fitness is opening soon near Sunnycrest.
"That's one of the first national brands we've had locate there," Boys said.
At the Family Video site, a gaming business took up space and the video rental store will reduce the size of that part of its operation to make room for a Marco's Pizza.
At Southgate, U-Haul franchise owner Aaron Freeman purchased that entire property and has plans to renovate that space to turn what he called "an eyesore" into a presentable establishment.
Freeman has experience in such a thing. He renovated a similar site in Peoria a few years ago and last week received a beautification award from Keep Peoria Beautiful for the work he and his people did with the space.
"It was an old dilapidated, abandoned building in Peoria that we were able to convert into our business model and it just kind of enhances the property value all around us and attracts other businesses," Freeman said. "We look forward to rejuvenating that particular site in Urbana and the businesses around there as well."
Weather permitting, the plan for Freeman is to have things completed at the Southgate site in the spring.
There's a lot happening at Sunnycrest, too. Kent Follmer, whose law practice is within the property, owns Sunnycrest and has been hard at work in recent months — spending about $25,000 — seeing that the center looks presentable to attract new businesses.
Broken windows have been replaced, and there's new lighting and stop signs in the rear. Soon, yellow striping will go down in the parking lot, as well as a new crosswalk. They're even contemplating a new fence along the back, and talks with the park district are underway for the tenants to have access to a private dog run.
A new roof was put in place two years ago at a cost of $300,000, and all the work has Follmer optimistic about his site's prospects.
"All in all, we've spruced the place up a little bit and made us very anxious to continue the process," Follmer said.
It's not just the aesthetics that have been updated; thanks to a partnership with Brian Hannon of Green Street Realty, some of the vacancies there are being filled. Of the 67,800 square feet available at Sunnycrest, about 70 percent is spoken for.
Tap-In Leadership Academy recently signed an agreement, Follmer said, to occupy about 1,800 square feet in the front of the center. A restaurant specializing in South American cuisine and a barbershop are among other businesses Follmer hopes will lease space at Sunnycrest soon.
"If we could rent that old Busey Bank spot, that would be a big chunk," Follmer said.
The focus of businesses that occupy Philo Road has shifted in the past couple of decades. No longer is Philo Road a regional retail center as it was when the street was a major thoroughfare in Champaign County. Businesses locating there now must be more focused on serving the neighborhood.
That being the case, the closing of County Market this summer is problematic even though there's a Meijer south on Philo at Windsor Road.
"What I do know is we need a good, quality replacement in terms of a food store there," said Urbana Alderwoman Diane Marlin, whose ward includes the Philo Road business district. "Not everyone can get to Meijer, so I think that piece is really important."
Niemann Foods, the company that owns and operates County Market, has not sold its Philo Road property. It is currently focused on the new Harvest Market opening in Champaign this week and the ValuCheck store that's replacing the County Market on Glen Park Drive.
Once those are up and running, there's a chance Niemann Foods could reopen a grocery store at that Philo Road location.
"We're content to wait and let them do that. It's a major initiative for their company," Boys said. "They're making a big investment in this market as a whole, Urbana's a part of the market and they told us what they intend to do and we take them at their word."
A movie theater and a hardware store are also on Marlin's wish list, as well as more restaurant options.
"People tell me all the time they would love a cafe or a restaurant," she said. "Milo's is wonderful, but people like to have some other choices like a place to go have a sandwich, a quick lunch, that sort of thing."
The pressing need, though, is a grocery store sooner rather than later.
"I'd be open to all sorts of possibilities. It would be nice to have other job opportunities for people in the neighborhood to have other services," Marlin said. "I wouldn't just say exclusively a Niemann product unless they've got something in mind. There's a real need."
For many years, a major problem for businesses in the Philo Road area was crime. It's an issue Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing has addressed during her 11 years in office.
"That spurred me on to pass a number of ordinances, which I did in my first and second terms to make the landlords be more accountable," Prussing said. "We've really strengthened making sure that buildings are safe and well-run. We figured the crime problems came from properties that were poorly managed."
According to data provided by Urbana police, police responses in the Philo Road business district have gone down each of the last five years. From September 2011 through August 2012, police responded to 313 incidents in that area. From September 2015 through August 2016, there were 194 police responses.
"That's an area we've paid a lot of attention to. We've passed ordinances and we've gotten pretty good results," Prussing said. "We're not finished with it yet, but we've made a lot of progress."
Longtime residents have seen plenty of changes to the Philo Road business district in recent years. The hope is that the changes happening in the near future are ones they'll be proud of.
"The city has invested a lot of money into the infrastructure and that's all good," Marlin said. "We obviously need to keep increasing the business investments."