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Small-town Havana embraces innovation, tourism, arts and culture on path to reinvention

While many rural towns across Illinois are trying to recover from tough economic times, one small city that has started to experience a degree of turnaround is Havana, about 45 miles southwest of Peoria.
Joe Deacon
Havana, about 45 miles southwest of Peoria, is starting to experience a turnaround after tough economic times.

Many small towns across Illinois are trying to recover from tough economic times, in part brought on by declines in agriculture, decreasing populations, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

One community that has started to experience a degree of turnaround is Havana, about 45 miles southwest of Peoria on the east side of the Illinois River.

Leaders there point to several reasons: a revitalized downtown, a commitment to arts and culture, a growing tourism industry, and advances in rural innovation.

Community leaders think their approach is working, as a traveling Smithsonian exhibition arrives in Havana to showcase rural communities like theirs.

April Burgett, president of the Havana Area Chamber of Commerce, said community leaders have worked hard to stave off a grim fate.

“Many rural communities today are fading and deteriorating, and there is no vibrancy left in the community for various reasons, including poverty levels and the loss of larger jobs, and places that offer great employment,” said Burgett. “Some communities are fading; others are thriving and they're growing and Havana is a great example of that.

“We have experienced a lot of growth and just a lot of positive things through innovative things we've done recently, including the downtown redevelopment and revitalization.”

Brenda Stadsholt is Havana's third-term mayor. She said the path to resurgence for a city that was established in 1852 started with implementation of a comprehensive plan a little more than a decade ago.

Havana Mayor Brenda Stadsholt, left, and Havana Area Chamber of Commerce President April Burgett attend the "Spark! Places of Innovation" exhibition at the Havana City Center.
Joe Deacon
Havana Mayor Brenda Stadsholt, left, and Havana Area Chamber of Commerce President April Burgett attend the "Spark! Places of Innovation" exhibition at the Havana City Center.

“The plan entailed, of course, always encouraging visitors to come to our community, while still helping the residents enjoy living in a smaller community,” said Stadsholt. “But when we looked at all the buildings up and down the street … and the building we were meeting in was the Riverside Club, and it needed a lot of help. So did all the historic buildings up and down Main Street and Plum Street.

“So we came to the conclusion that we, the city, had to help financially support these business people so they could change the outlook of their building and maintain a historic look to our downtown.”

Downtown's importance

Placing a focus on re-energizing Havana's historic downtown was a critical step, she said.

“It truly is the heart of our business community. I've heard many times through the years that if you don't have a vibrant and thriving downtown, as a small town, you simply don't have a healthy town,” said Burgett. “You need that heartbeat of your town to keep things alive. It is the center of your activities, your events, your business, and you really need that.”

Stadsholt said the comprehensive plan had to go beyond Havana's downtown.

“In the plan, it wasn't just about encouraging visitors or holding onto our historic outlook, but also making use of the river and the riverfront,” said Stadsholt. “We have a beautiful riverfront that a lot of small communities don't have.”

In a partnership with the nonprofit organization Illinois Humanities, the Havana chamber is hosting a traveling exhibition as part of the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street Program. Burgett said the display entitled “Spark!” highlights rural innovation.

“The exhibition is really focused on three or four core areas, including arts and culture, technology and the actual innovation of inventions or recreation to reinvigorate your community,” she said.

Gabrielle Lyon, Illinois Humanities Executive Director
Sarah Joyce
Gabrielle Lyon, Illinois Humanities Executive Director

Gabrielle Lyon, executive director of Illinois Humanities, said the agency's mission is to help small towns and rural communities get access to exhibits like this and experience the power of the humanities.

“The theme of the exhibit is ‘Spark!,’ and it's all about the way small towns, rural communities innovate in technology, agriculture, economic development, arts and culture and, you know, Havana is doing it on all fronts,” said Lyon.

Burgett said the exhibition serves as another attraction as Havana places an emphasis on growing as a tourist destination.

“We truly have a lot of different things to offer, and a lot of that is because of our location on the Illinois River,” said Burgett. “We have a lot of ecotourism, a lot of natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities, and our downtown has connected to the river, which is pretty unique.”

The exhibit at the Havana City Center includes a locally-produced display showcasing Havana's history, emphasizing the revitalized downtown and ongoing research initiatives conducted within the Illinois River Valley near Havana.

Linda Walker is a former teacher and a volunteer guide at the “Spark!” exhibition.

“It's wonderful to be highlighted in some of the wonderful things that are going on in the community of Havana today,” said Walker. “To have this exhibit and to have all these people volunteer to be docents is just a real tribute to the people who are living here in Havana, Illinois.”

Classes of students from Havana High School had the opportunity to attend the exhibit earlier this week. P.E. teacher Erika Foster served as chaperone.

“The bus ride back is when we're getting a lot of feedback,” said Foster. “They'll talk about something that they saw here and didn't know — and Linda Walker is doing a fantastic job of exposing them to Havana’s traditions that they had no idea about, so it's been neat to listen to them.”

Foster said students discuss things they would like to see in Havana in the future, and she encourages them to be the ones to make it happen.

That's an exciting possibility, said Walker.

“All it takes is one idea to make your town better, and people will rally around you and help you make that be a reality,” she said.

Embracing the arts

Another way Havana aims to attract visitors while serving current residents is by embracing arts and culture. Lyon said having a thriving arts and culture community is a necessity.

“Because at the end of the day, that's what affects people's lives, that's what affects a town's livability,” she said. “Is there something to do? Is there an experience you’ve shared with a neighbor that you get to talk about afterwards, that you might not have been able to just do by yourself?

“We can all sit at home and stream a video at home. But it means something to be able to have gone to the Chamber of Commerce, or to go to a cultural location and see an exhibit, to see local artifacts, to talk about stories in history that are relevant — and to understand that that history, that culture is part of the future.”

Burgett wholeheartedly agrees with that notion.

“That's so true. We decided we have always had this really great mix of artists in all different forms and a lot of music and songwriters, and that was really the direction that Havana was going,” said Burgett. “Capitalizing and really putting out there the fact that we do have all that arts and culture, and finding a way that we could organize it into events that would attract folks to come in.”

Stadsholt also noted the outdoors offer another major draw to the Havana area, courtesy of not only the river, but also the Emiquon and Chautauqua national wildlife refuges.

“Here we have all this nature that surrounds us, and the walks that they have — they have guided walks, guided tours,” she said. “We're very fortunate to live in Havana, we really are. We're surrounded by nature, and we're surrounded with really great people and partners."

Burgett said a true belief in Havana's direction by everyone involved will succeed in unlocking future economic prosperity for their small town.

“We're seeing that, with tourism and involvement just from the community as well, and pride in letting go of those old thoughts that we are a small town and therefore incapable of being successful,” said Burgett. “Now we see a thriving small town that is really becoming more and more popular as a destination, and we're seeing that visitorship really grow.”

The traveling Smithsonian exhibition “Spark!” at the Havana City Center runs through Feb. 17.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.