By Catherine O’Connor

The historic train station in the city of Lincoln is experiencing the latest of several makeovers in its 105-year lifespan.  Improvements as part of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) High Speed Rail (HSR) track upgrade on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor have led to a depot renovation project now underway that will include a new boarding platform, accessible parking, a drop-off area and long-term off-street parking with pedestrian and bike access, according to IDOT passenger rail marketing manager Scott Speegle.

In best-case scenario economic development fashion, the IDOT investment of federal HSR funding for the station upgrade has spurred the creation of a new downtown tax increment financing (TIF) district where a local business revitalization and a major theater grand opening has already taken shape.

The first modernization of Lincoln’s 1911 depot was an addition built in the 1970s, which housed a once popular restaurant and catering business. Through the ’70s and ’80s, the funky depot eatery featured seating in a train lounge car, a dining car and two cabooses, as well as artifacts from the golden age of train travel.  As part of the most recent upgrade, the Chicago-based railroad conglomerate Iowa Pacific Holdings was selected by IDOT and Lincoln to move the antique rail cars to Chicago, where they will be restored to be used for future charter or excursion service.

Illinois received a total of $57.1 million dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant. With its share, the city of Lincoln put on quite a show in early October, as extra large cranes and specialized flat bed trailers were brought in to remove the sidelined train cars from the depot site, making way for remodeling at the passenger station.

Meanwhile, just across Kickapoo Street from the train depot project is the site of a new venture developed by David Lanterman, a downtown Lincoln advocate. In 2011, Lanterman made a bold strategic move to purchase the Lincoln Theater 4 from national chain Carmike Cinemas.  With its classic neon lights heralding the name “Lincoln,” the theater is one of very few left in the country which has been in continuous use since its opening as a single stage, vaudeville house in 1923.

Lanterman, along with partners and investors, has been busy for the past five years creating the elements that he and Mayor Marty Neitzel agree will make Lincoln an entertainment destination not just for local residents, but also attracting out of town tourists.  As an incentive for growth and development, the city created a downtown TIF district in 2012, which provided a grant for $2 million of the total $6.6 million theater project.

According to the mayor, the TIF has also allowed the establishment of a facade grant program, which provides $10,000 or up to 50 percent of project costs for exterior facade renovation projects to downtown businesses. An important link in this process is the work of an economic development director, a full-time position funded by a hotel/motel tax. Also, city administrator Clay Johnson brings professional public administration knowledge and perspective at this exciting time in Lincoln’s history.

The theater project involved the demolition of two older buildings on Kickapoo Street to create space to replace two of the four older screens with a six screen expansion, resulting in what is now the block-long Lincoln Grand 8 multiplex.  Both the theater/restaurant project and the rail passenger station are located within Lincoln’s historic district, so care was taken to respect the architectural characteristics of the area, according to Johnson.

At the corner of Clinton and Kickapoo, the new eight screen theater is flanked by the historic Sandel’s Service station, a 1930s building that is the planned site of a new restaurant offering access to one of the auditoriums. This would allow for a dinner theater concept, which is still in the planning stages, according to Lanterman.

Another addition to the downtown square on Pulaski St. is the Spirited Republic microbrewery, offering local craft beers and fine wines with indoor and outdoor seating.  Its back door provides access onto a patio near the entrance to Guzzardo’s Italian Villa restaurant, a fixture in Lincoln for more than 40 years.  Around the corner on Kickapoo, the newly opened Deep Roots Bakery and Cafe has also sprung up.

Mayor Neitzel, a lifelong resident, said, “downtown Lincoln looks better than it has in many years. I’d like to see us develop bus or train tours, to bring people here because there is so much interest in our resale shops, restaurants and now the theater.”

According to Johnson, there has been a need for public education to answer concerns about why public funds are being used to help private business. “There is tangible evidence of success when residents say to me, ‘now I don’t have to go out of town to see a movie,’” Johnson remarked.

And those moviegoers no doubt found it especially significant that the opening of the expanded Lincoln Grand 8 coincided with the holiday premiere of the blockbuster film, Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens.

Catherine O’Connor can be reached at