Watch now: Downtown Bloomington sees progress on vacant buildings | Local Business

BLOOMINGTON – For years, Bloomington’s historic business district has grappled with a cycle of major businesses packing their bags and relocating, but developers foresee a resurgence of interest thanks to recent economic development.

For one, the 100-year-old warehouse at 216 E. Grove St. sat empty for a number of years before new owner and Bloomington real estate agent Robbie Osenga readapted the site for office space. Meltdown Creative Works was the first to sign a lease there, moving into the building in early 2021.

Jeremy Plue, co-owner and chief creative at Meltdown Creative Works, 216 E. Grove St., stands before a photo mural of a historic view of the once bustling downtown Bloomington. The business was one of the first to make a commitment to address the issue of long-vacant downtown buildings when he moved into the property.


Today, the warehouse is at 85% capacity with more businesses on the way, Osenga said.

“I would say the lion’s share of my time is working with local and out-of-state businesses exploring both our downtown and renovating existing office spaces in our community,” Osenga said. “It’s really exciting. … I think there’s a sense of economic momentum.”

Business ebbs and flows

In February 2020, The Pantagraph surveyed the number of empty commercial spaces after the closure of two businesses on the museum square: Subway, 109 W. Jefferson St., in July 2019, and CVS Pharmacy, 208 to 2010 N. Center St., in January 2020.

Two years later, Subway has been replaced by Sugar Mama Bakery, which moved from uptown Normal to the downtown Bloomington spot in July 2021.

And in December, the former CVS was listed for $ 511,380. The 17,046-square-foot building has piqued inquiries, and owner Debbie Dillon said she has given several tours since the listing.

“It’s a historic building on the courthouse square, so I think it’s a great location,” Dillon said. “I’ve had quite a few showings and some interest in the building, so hopefully we’ll get somebody in there. I love the location; it’s beautiful in there.”


The building that housed the former CVS Pharmacy at 210 N. Center St., Bloomington, is listed with Coldwell Banker.


And while several multi-story buildings in downtown Bloomington remain vacant – including the former Front ‘N’ Center building at 102 N. Center St., the former Commerce Bank at 120 N. Center St. and former Elks Lodge at 110 N. Madison St., all owned by real estate developer Merle Huff – there has been a recent movement.

Rockford-based Urban Equity Properties brought in Keplr Vision to lease the top four floors of the former State Farm building, 112 E. Washington St. In early February, the company said it has signed a lease for a new business to move into the 13-story building, with plans to reach 75% capacity by the end of the year.

Keplr Vision, the parent company of All About Eyes, is also looking to expand and lease additional floors within the building.


Screen printer Arturo Salazar works on a line of T-shirts at Meltdown Creative Works, 216 E. Grove St. in downtown Bloomington on Friday.


The former Bloomington High School, 510 E. Washington St., was converted into senior apartments, which became available to lease in early 2021.

Overall, there has been an influx of new businesses downtown in the past year.

Sixteen new businesses opened and five closed downtown in 2021, said Samantha Mlot, downtown Bloomington development specialist. Those numbers are up from 2020, when 12 new businesses opened and seven closed.

Of the five businesses that closed, four were quickly replaced by new or relocating businesses. Four others – 3 oh 9 Microblading, McCarron Law Frim, Galaxy Nails and Cori Strong Photography – moved out of downtown.

“I think with everything else, it has ebbed and flowed over time,” Mlot said. “There have been several iterations of the Downtown Business Association. They did a lot of work to continue to shine a light on downtown, and all of that work that they did help get us to where we are today. “

She added, “I think having over 70 community events in one area also drives a lot of place-making and revitalization.”

Investing in downtown

Other downtown buildings that remain empty include the Main Plaza building at 301 N. Main St., the CII East building at 102 S. East St., and the former Pantagraph building, 301 W. Washington St.

The former Pantagraph building has seen interest, but has also revealed some of the difficulties that come with adapting an aging, yet historic, building for a new use.


The building that housed the former Pantagraph newspaper operations at 301 W. Washington St. in Bloomington, vacant remains.


In February 2021, Connect Transit announced it would begin pursuing the building as the site for its downtown Bloomington transportation center.

However, the company cannot move forward with purchasing the building – which is owned by St. Louis-based Oak LLC / Raven Development – until a National Environmental Policy Act study is completed. The study began in October and could last through March 2023, depending on the condition of the building.

Now, Connect Transit is considering alternatives for its center due to costs associated with readapting the space, said General Manager David Brown.

“As things develop, we’ll be able to have some better conclusions, better thoughts on how to progress,” Brown said. “We will just continue on this steady path and see where it takes us and what alternatives there might be.”

Other locations considered for the project are the CII East building and the Market Street parking deck, 202 W. Market St.

Meanwhile, a few miles north, uptown Normal has not seen the same trend of lingering vacancies that downtown Bloomington has experienced. While a few storefronts there do stand empty due to business closures, moves, or as they await further development, the town’s revitalization effort of a decade ago seems to have boosted uptown’s business scene.

One of the most recent expansions is the anticipated Fiala Brothers Brewery, which is working toward a spring opening date at 127 E. Beaufort St.

To boost Bloomington’s own growth, the city is exploring incentives for building owners to fill vacancies and maintain the buildings, said City Manager Tim Gleason. One way could be to provide financial assistance for owners and developers to attain the necessary building code upgrades, he said.

“There are things that get in the way of property owners being fully able to utilize an older building because they’re not up to the code,” Gleason said. “Sprinklers and elevators are truly at the top of the list.”

Tim Gleason


The incentives could be included as part of the Downtown Master Plan. Bloomington has put out a request for proposals and is working on a contract with a firm to update the document, which will include significant public engagement to direct projects.

“We have to create, and it’s there, but we need to further establish the downtown as a destination,” Gleason said. it’s a destination for entertainment as well.

“I know there are some naysayers out there, but I think it’s proven in communities across the United States that a historic downtown is the heartbeat of a community.”

Meltdown Creative Works moved into the historic warehouse at 216 E. Grove St. in early 2021 from its previous location on Washington St. Since moving in, a number of new businesses have opened inside the renovated Grove & Prairie Warehouse, including an insurance company.

“I think a lot of people have been coming to downtown for a long time and seeing these great buildings that have been underutilized,” said Jeremy Plue, 44, owner of Meltdown Creative Works. “I think that people who have the means are now finding these great buildings and figuring out better ways to utilize them. ”


Sign designer Kacie Nord prepares a client’s materials at Meltdown Creative Works on Friday.


Plue added that the city should work with entrepreneurs and local business owners to begin addressing vacancies in downtown. He pointed specifically to the Front ‘N’ Center Building and the Former Elks Lodge, which he said could be transformed into great locations for businesses.

“It’s just a shame to me that it just kind of sits there empty with windows boarded up,” Plue said. “No downtown should ever be OK with any building in its vicinity just sitting boarded up.” There should be every effort made to do something with these vacancies. ”

Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.

“I know there are some naysayers out there, but I think it’s proven in communities across the United States that a historic downtown is the heartbeat of a community.”

– Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason



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