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updated: 6/22/2012 7:38 AM

2 years after tornado Elmwood rebuilds

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  • A 1953 Cadillac Fleetwood, modified from a four-door sedan by its owner, Bruce Phelps, stands parked in front of the Uptown Cafe, opened by Shawn and Rita Jones in August, 2011, in downtown Elmwood.

      A 1953 Cadillac Fleetwood, modified from a four-door sedan by its owner, Bruce Phelps, stands parked in front of the Uptown Cafe, opened by Shawn and Rita Jones in August, 2011, in downtown Elmwood.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

ELMWOOD -- The fact that the tornado that tore into this Peoria County town two years ago has led to economic development doesn't surprise Dick Taylor.

"It would have been different if someone h

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ad been hurt or there had been loss of life, but the tornado helped us look at things," said Taylor, who coordinated reconstruction in Elmwood and now directs the town's economic development program.

"We were experiencing what all small towns have seen in the past 10 years," he said, referring to a growing number of vacant buildings and a decline in business in this town of 2,100.

"We lost the Fair Store the year before the tornado hit," said Taylor, referring to the general store that had graced Elmwood's downtown since 1890, an indication of the decline in the town's business climate.

But the organization and cooperation that developed among residents and business owners in repairing the tornado damage has carried over, said Taylor, who also cited the role that government agencies played in helping the town get grants for rebuilding projects.

Elmwood is growing again. The signs are visible all over town. There's major construction on Main Street, where Doug Whitney is constructing an office/retail complex complete with clock tower, replacing a building ravaged by the tornado where his grandfather once had a law office.

"It's a family legacy to put it back together," said Whitney, the president of Whitney & Associates, a Peoria engineering firm specializing in construction materials testing.

Down the street, Dave Jordan, the owner of Jordan Mobil Service Center, is also contemplating a building project. "I've had a two-stall garage for 40 years. In two months, we'll be putting up a brand new building. We'll have three hoists instead of one," said Jordan, noting that he's in business with son Chad, the town's fire chief.

Jordan is proud of his town and the fact that, even though it's growing, it's staying small.

"I have my steady customers. Between 9:30 and 10 a.m., you'll find the old-timers here, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze," he said.

Jordan said he still provides old-time service to a number of his customers. "We still go out and wash their windows and pump their gas," he said.

Jordan, a school board member for more than 20 years, points to the town's school system as one of the things that's been a great addition to the Elmwood community.

Another addition is the new True Value hardware store that Sarah Carter opened in February. Describing her store as "10,000 nails in a five-pound box," she explained that sliding shelves allow her to stock product in the store's 2,600 square feet of space, making it comparable to a 4,000-square foot outlet.

The 27 sliding shelves allow her to carry more goods, but presents a bit of a challenge to first-time shoppers when it comes to locating things.

As a result, Carter emphasizes personal service and gets assistance from her father, Ron Sulaski, who owned a hardware store in Princeville for 37 years before retiring in December.

At Every Little Thing & More,110 E. Main St., the consignment center owned by Jody Centers, the daily challenge is to get noticed.

"We just held a tornado anniversary sale," said Jason Centers, the owner's husband. "We're always looking for ways to keep the message fresh," he said.

The store uses Facebook to help get the word out and how has 350 followers, said Jason Centers.

"The big push is to bring people to town to see what we have. The upside for Elmwood is amazing," he said.

Jason Centers also spearheaded an effort to add Elmwood to the Spoon River Drive celebration in October, the first non-Fulton County town to be included.

"We think Elmwood's a nice place to start the drive," he said.

Sandy Cantu, owner of the Elmwood Emporium, an antiques/gift shop nearby, has operated her store for a year.

A teacher at Manual Academy, Cantu and her husband have lived in Elmwood for four years. "We wanted to invest in this community," she said of her store where paintings by local artists greet shoppers who enter.

Also investing in Elmwood are Amanda and Ryan Foster, owners of the Hick'ry Stick restaurant, 118 E. Main St, a big place that once served as the Odd Fellows Hall and had been the site for the Elmwood Brewing Co., a local brewpub.

"We're caterers first so that helps," said Amanda Foster, referring to making use of a roomy building that includes a second-floor ballroom with seating for 220 people.

Once known as the Parkview, the building, with its nice view of the park in the center of town, also houses a coffee shop called the Perkview.

We knew it would take a year to develop our banquet business," said Ryan Foster, who, during a typical 15-hour day, bakes everything from scratch except for the croissants, noted his wife.

With his degree in marketing along with extensive culinary arts instruction (including a session in France), Ryan Foster is appreciative of the way that Elmwood has welcomed the arrival of an eatery to town.

"They're happy to have us," he said.

That's part of what makes Elmwood a good place to live, said Taylor. "It's a small town where you know so many people that you feel neighborly," he said.

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