By Matt Sanctis, Staff Writer Springfield News-Sun
Downtown Urbana has seen a spike in activity this fall, with three businesses moving into the city’s historic Monument Square District, along with other improvements designed to bring more residents into the heart of the town.
Over the next several weeks, Big Willie’s Smokehouse will open a new barbecue restaurant at 23 Monument Square and Mark Joseph Floral Design Studio will open at 15 Monument Square.
The law firm of Thompson, Dunlap and Heydinger also plans to open a downtown office in Monument Square by the end of this year, said Chris Moell, an attorney at the firm based in Bellefontaine.
Improvements have also been made at Legacy Park, including fresh paint and a kiosk that highlights available businesses downtown, said Marcia Bailey, economic development coordinator for the Champaign Economic Partnership. The new businesses are a sign that interest and investment downtown has improved in recent years, she said.
“We’re fortunate that if somebody does close, it doesn’t take too much time before someone else opens up, which gives us a variety of stores downtown,” Bailey said.
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Local leaders hope to see progress on other projects downtown, including finding a use for the former Douglas Hotel, Bailey said. That project hasn’t moved forward for years, but she said local officials have placed a renewed emphasis on that and other projects to promote further investment downtown.
Bill Curtis of Big Willie’s Smokehouse said he had a five-year business plan to open a restaurant when he opened a barbecue food truck earlier this year. But the business took off so quickly he joked it ended up being closer to a five-month business plan.
“We opened in March and we were overwhelmed,” Curtis said. “If I smoked 50 pounds of brisket, I could have sold 75. If I’d smoked 75 I could have sold 100, which is a great problem to have.”
The restaurant, which is expected to open in October, will be decorated with large photos of downtown Urbana’s history. It will focus on serving items like brisket, pulled pork and smoked chicken wings. The store will likely hire six or seven employees.
“We definitely want to see these buildings filled,” Curtis said of downtown. “We’re excited about the growth and the changes we’re seeing in our town.”
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Just across the street, Mark Mefford will open the floral design studio at 15 Monument Square.
And the law firm will open its office in the square by the end of the year. It will be the firm’s fourth, along with offices in Bellefontaine, West Liberty and Lakeview. This year is the firm’s 50th anniversary.
Mefford has been working in downtown Urbana since he was 19 and owns Bill’s Enchanted Flowers and Gifts. But he recently purchased H Holding Co. and will open the design studio in the square in a larger location. The new store will be open in mid-October, and will offer a variety of home decorations, gifts and the flower shop in a single location.
The store employs about eight workers. Mefford’s brother is also building a custom-made cooler to show off the business’ floral products, he said.
The former flower shop at 221 N. Main St. will close once they move into the new location.
“It’s only doing better and better,” Mefford said of downtown. “I’ve watched it change over 21 years with ups and down. I think right now its only getting stronger. It’s becoming a destination town, which is really nice.”
The Springfield News-Sun provide extensive coverage of jobs and the economy in Clark and Champaign Counties, including tracking local unemployment rates and expansions at Navistar.