Visiting downtown Libertyville didn't always involve a pleasant tree-lined stroll past restored and repurposed century-old buildings, window shopping at boutique shops or listening to live lunch-hour music at Cook Park.
Instead, like other downtowns that lost business and customers to shopping malls and big box stores in the 1980s, there were many empty storefronts and a low-rent feel to Libertyville.
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"We had broken windows and pigeons living in the buildings," said Jeff Lovinger, a businessman who in 1985 bought the first of what eventually would be a stable of five buildings downtown.
It would take many years and more than $75 million in combined public ($12 million) and private ($63 million) investment to transform the area to the bustling hub it is today. And a big part of the game-changing process began in 1989, with the establishment of MainStreet Libertyville, a program pioneered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
This past week, the nonprofit group marked its 25th anniversary and plans an open house on Friday to share the story.
"I had visions of it being a good town and a good place to invest (but) never in my wildest dreams did I think it would reach the level that it is," said Lovinger, who was installed this past January as chairman of the MainStreet board of directors.
The downtown has become so popular with an influx of new restaurants and other businesses and more planned, that parking at times can be difficult. Village leaders are working to provide more.
However, getting there hasn't always been easy. Money wasn't always available and selling improvement ideas to store owners could be slow going.
"Once it got established, the momentum held," said Dan Mayworm, who is regarded as the catalyst that brought MainStreet to Libertyville.
When he initially got involved in the 1980s, Mayworm said, the downtown landscape was in bad shape.
"Hard to get excited about," he recalled. "Not very inspiring."
But his purchase and renovation of what is now the Libertyville Bank & Trust Co., at 507 N. Milwaukee Ave., led to an invitation to join the village board's advisory urban planning committee.
He learned of the fledgling renovation effort. With $10,000 in seed money from the village, he arranged a series of town meetings with representatives from the National Trust.
"We managed to stir up some excitement on the (village) board," Mayworm said.
One requirement was the village provide $50,000 in funding for three years. Results were expected quickly, Mayworm said.
"They were getting anxious," he said of village leaders. "We never indicated to them it would be easy. One of the main stumbling blocks were the store owners downtown. We thought they would be the easy ones to sell. They were the toughest."
But the door-to-door sales pitches and other efforts eventually paid off.
At the time MainStreet was established the downtown vacancy rate was about 30 percent. Now, it is considered negligible. Rents of about $6 a square foot then have risen to $25 a square foot today in some cases.
And since 1986, when the village established a special taxing district to generate money to make improvements downtown, the market value of property has jumped from about $35 million to $118 million, according to the village. Funds generated by the tax increment financing district have been used for utility upgrades, streetscape improvements, a parking deck and facade grants, among other things.
"Without our village, MainStreet wouldn't be what it is, and they've been rewarded by the success of it," Lovinger said. "Everybody wants to be in Libertyville now."
In 1997, the organization won the Great American Main Street Award as best in the U.S.
But when the economy tumbled, trouble returned. Ten years ago, the village -- facing its own crisis -- slashed its $50,000 annual contribution to MainStreet to $25,000 and eventually to $5,000. By 2008, the cash-strapped organization was in crisis mode and nearly folded.
However, the leaders persevered and eventually MainStreet rebounded. Today, it is a success story for revitalization that other communities can learn from, officials say.
"They are definitely, by far, one of the strongest programs in the state, if not the country," said Christina Rogers, Main Street coordinator for the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity.
Illinois started its Main Street program in 1993 (Libertyville joined the state program in 1997) and currently it has 41 member communities.
Rogers said it can be difficult for local organizations to sustain momentum.
"It's possible they (other Main Street organizations) aren't engaging the community and the community doesn't understand why it's important to have a nice vibrant downtown," she said. "Sometimes they will lose funding, or sometimes lose their direction. It's incredible what they've (Libertyville) accomplished in such a short time."
The atmosphere has drawn entrepreneurs like Lara Ariazi, who two years ago opened Ariazi Salon & Spa in the heart of downtown.
"We were either going to have this location, or we wouldn't open up at all," said the Mundelein resident and Libertyville High School graduate. "It was about the events that bring people down here."
Her clients grew 20 percent the first year and 40 percent the second, she added.
MainStreet Libertyville, which sponsors more than 50 days of events a year, markets the area for its "historical charm and small town character," as well as the urban mix of independent shopkeepers.
The events range from a weekly antique car show and farmers market during the summer to the two-weekend Dickens of a Holiday celebration before Christmas and a post-holiday winter wine tasting.
"They just keep the attraction and target goal on one purpose, and that's the public events and to get the public here," Ariazi said.