By Mayor J. Michael Houston

Mayor Houston delivered this speech Jan. 22 at the annual Downtown Springfield, Inc., banquet and the Springfield Hilton. It is edited and abridged for the Springfield Business Journal.

While the city can boast of many different areas and neighborhoods, there are few as important as our downtown. Today it remains, as it has been historically, the focal point, the property tax base, and the employment base of our community. It is the heart of Springfield. What is taking place right now will resonate across this great American city.

I’ll begin with these three words to describe the shape of downtown: emergent, vivacious and promise. Our downtown… although it isn’t there yet… is poised to explode with emerging business and tourism growth for these reasons:

Much that is old is once again new.

The renovation of the Prairie Capital Convention Center will attract new business, help retain existing customers and generate new sales and marketing opportunities for groups and associations. Our city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau markets the Convention Center as a part of its sales efforts to bring people to Mr. Lincoln’s Hometown and to spend nights in our hotels and motels.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is a cornerstone in our downtown — always bringing in new and exciting exhibits. Last week we saw the launch of “Lincoln: History to Hollywood” exhibit at the Union Station where visitors and residents alike will be able to view how just one Lincoln story was brought to the big screen. This fascinating exhibit presents an opportunity to inspire both first-time and returning visitors to come to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.

To make downtown vivacious we need an environment that is safe and sparkling.

I am sure you have noticed that Springfield Green is still going strong. The familiar presence of the downtown planters can still surprise us with new designs and plants leading to some of the best downtown “sparkle” in years. I want to give a special thank you to Abby Walden who oversees the Springfield Green program for the Public Works Department.

On the economic front, the future is promising and tremendously bright.

Barker Development Corporation has completed the exterior and interior rehabilitation to the Motor Inn at Fourth and Monroe Streets and is currently renovating the Old Sears building on the 600 block of East Adams. Anyone who has gone by Fourth and Monroe immediately notices the improvements which were funded in part by Tax Increment Fund financing of $860,000.

The Ferguson Building at Sixth and Monroe has been transformed. Thank you to Rick and Kim Lawrence. It has had an extensive cleanup and removal of the exterior window grids. The Booth Building has completed the removal of what is referred to as the “slip cover” from the building. We are hopeful that the restoration will result in a designation so the Booth Building is included as part of Springfield’s Downtown Historic District. While both the renovation of the Booth and Ferguson buildings are still in their infancy, these updates have already provided a major improvement to the appearance of the area.

The Prairie Capital Convention Center is putting the finishing touches on a $15 million facelift and improvement plan that will make the facility more appealing and more alluring for future conventions and visitors. It will be more user friendly and functional for everyone. I want to congratulate the Springfield Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority on this project and the city is pleased and proud to be a significant partner in this effort by means of $5 million of assistance from Tax Increment Financing funds.

Last year at this event I announced that the Kidzeum was going to locate in the old Schnepp & Barnes building on the 400 block of East Adams. The city is pleased to partner with the Kidzeum to assist in rehabilitation and building improvements by way of $888,000 of Tax Increment Financing funds. The Kidzeum board is well on its way to reaching its fundraising goal and seems to announce major new donations on a weekly basis.

The city is close to completing the purchase of the entire square block bounded by Fourth and Fifth Streets, and Jackson and Capitol. The state completed its property disposition process and agreed to sell its portion of the block for just over $1.5 million. Efforts to secure the remaining portion of the block are close to final and the city hopes to complete the transactions in the first quarter of 2014. Once the city has obtained the property, an initiative will be launched for proposals to redevelop the property.

The central business area continues to experience dramatic investment from the health care and medical industries. Between St. John’s Hospital, Memorial Medical Center, Springfield Clinic and Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Springfield is witnessing improvements totaling more than $350 million to the respective physical plants of these vital employers.

Thanks to the efforts of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor’s SDAT Action Committee, a national research firm was brought in to study the downtown housing market and confirm with facts that there is a demand and potential to attract hundreds of new residents within five years. This matches the national trend of movement back to city dwelling and fits well with the availability of vacant office space and plans to improve the existing infrastructure of our inner city. A more pedestrian friendly, walkable, livable, vibrant downtown neighborhood will attract young professionals and help our economy grow with amenities to serve the needs of downtown residents.

The ribbon cutting on Sept. 4 officially marked the conclusion of a $5 million overhaul and the opening of the newly renovated President Abraham Lincoln Springfield, a Doubletree by Hilton Hotel. That represents a significant entry into the national market of travelers, tourists and conventioneers. It will serve to strengthen the city’s position in attracting conventions to the recent $15 million renovation of the neighboring Prairie Capital Convention Center.

In an effort to offset longer delays at Third Street railroad crossings caused by freight trains which are longer and will be more frequent, safety features will be added to allow trains to increase travel speed from 25 to 40 mph through the city. These safety features will create a much-needed quiet zone which will enhance prospects for more residential development. At the same time, prospects that Railroad Consolidation will happen were supported by the announcement of the $14.4 million TIGER Grant. In 2014 construction of the first of eight proposed new underpasses along the 10th street corridor will begin.

The city’s desire to complete construction features of the 10th Street Rail Consolidation have been helped by the $8.65 million grant from Governor Quinn and IDOT to cover half the cost of planning and design of the 10th Street Railroad Corridor. In addition, we will be receiving approximately $5 million for closing at-grade railroad crossing from the Illinois Commerce Commission for the 10th and Carpenter underpass. Completion of this first underpass in 2015 will also provide immediate improvement for emergency vehicle access to medical facilities for those traveling from east to west on Carpenter Street.

Hopefully, this summary will confirm for you that right now, the shape of downtown Springfield has an abundance of promise, and is emergent and vivacious.