By Tyler Dunahee
A few weeks ago, before spring break, I went back to my hometown, the location of my thesis project to do some analysis to see what could help the former railroad town, and possibly see what was holding it back.
Centralia, Illinois faces a number of problems going forward, and in many ways, the future of this historic railroad town is in jeopardy. Trends, both current and those decades old, have yet to be solved and a steady loss of business, and therefore jobs, and people have left town. Between 2001 and 2003, over three thousand jobs were lost (Rickard, 2005) and the population was down nine percent from 1990 in 2012 (city-data.com). The downtown sits almost completely empty, a tattoo parlor and music store occupy prime real estate downtown, most of the other builds sit empty or damaged from recent fires. Most of these issues are a result of a number of bad decisions and bad design, most of which can be solved through good design and good planning. The city of Centralia was built around the railroad, because that was the lifeline of the town, times have changed and the city must be able to change with the times, not just the current times, but for the future. The first plan for Centralia, built around the railroad, worked and lasted for nearly a century and a half, but has long outlasted its usefulness. The main idea of this proposal is a master plan for the city of Centralia primarily on the downtown area, but also a few outlaying areas of the city. The main focus for downtown is to bring people there through a number of different strategies, as well as set up the city for future success and growth. The focus for the Centralia outside of the downtown area is to bring more recognition to what Centralia has to offer, through signage and design.
A number of issues that Centralia faces cannot be solved with township and a new master plan for the city, as most of the businesses were small manufacturers that outsourced the work to another state or country, as well as a number of state facility closures, one closure that is currently being fought by the community, Warren G. Murray Center, would result in the loss of five hundred and forty-one jobs. Although this proposal can do little to stop these trends, it calls for a section of the downtown area to become a mixed use, bringing new life, ideas, jobs, and people to what is now a dead downtown. Existing downtown apartments above existing businesses shall be renovated, as well as the businesses or empty building below.
The Centralia Opportunity Fund established in 2006 has done a good job of encouraging business growth throughout town, as well as downtown, but businesses are still not going to move into an empty, desolate area of town that has little traffic, both automobile and foot, so traffic must be brought to what is here and by what the city can develop, then businesses will be eager to move in as well.
Public transit is almost invisible in the city of Centralia, modes of public transportation is to be incorporated into this new plan for Centralia, new routes, bus stops, and alternative methods are to be implemented throughout the city. Public transit would provide the opportunity for those who can't easily get downtown the chance to at very little cost. Centralia's citizens mean commute to work is about twenty minutes and 80.4% of them commute via personal vehicle alone (ACS City Economic Census Data). A public transportation system needs to be implemented, not only for the city itself, but for the environment.
Bikes are another mode of transportation neglected by Centralia. There are not marked bike paths in Centralia, nor are there any bike lanes. Bike lanes shall be provided throughout the city and the use of them should be encouraged. Even though the mean time of commute is twenty minutes, over 29% of residents have commutes of less than ten minutes (city-data.com), most of which would easily be bike able if given the proper means. Encouragement of bikes isn't just an environmental advantage, bikes would provide a healthy alternative to driving and is much easier on the wallet with gas prices rising, people just need the safety of bike lanes and paths to emerge themselves in it.
There is little to draw visitors to downtown Centralia or Centralia in general. There are a number of new buildings that could be built downtown. The first of which is a memorial or museum for those that lost their lives in the Centralia No. 5 Mine Disaster of 1947. In 1947, one hundred and eleven men lost their lives when the mine collapsed. There is just a small memoriam and shelter for these miners near the site of the accident. There is so much to be said for this accident, such a history and controversy behind the mine disaster and such a history of coal mining in Centralia. The disaster was the second largest in United States history since WWII and this new museum/memorial for the miners could draw people from all over to Centralia. The history of the railroad in the city can be integrated into the proposed coal mining museum as well or there is enough history there to demand its own museum as the railroad is what built this down, and provided jobs has been a means of transportation since 1852. Another building proposed is to house the Centralia Sports Hall of Fame. The current facility is located on the second floor of the city hall. Centralia has a rich sports history and for all of the memorabilia to be housed properly, a new building should be prominently placed in town, instead of hid away in the second floor of city hall. Centralia High School's basketball team, known as the Orphans, was the "winningest" basketball in the nation for decades, their run not ending until the early 1990's. The school owns numerous state championships in a number of sports, the first coming as early as 1918. Centralia has also been the hometown of a number of record holders at the high school and collegiate level, professional athletes, a Globetrotter, and even an Olympian. There has been more than enough sports history to fill a number of buildings, let alone a hallway on the second floor of city hall. There are a number of historic artists and pieces in Centralia, as well as a number of emerging creative types living in Centralia, and with the encouragement of an artist colony downtown, an art museum could easily be opened downtown as well.
A number of particularly historic buildings could be renovated to meet the demands of their new use, and some already have. The historic Illinois Theater was opened in 1922 with twelve hundred seats, it was just recently renovated The former Centralia Community Center building, a historic building constructed in 1941 was vacant for years downtown until just recently when Centralia Good Times and Fun Center purchased the building, renovating only slightly, as the building was originally purposed for a similar use. The Centralia City Museum is currently located downtown, however it is located in an old wholesale grocery warehouse. The building is historic, however, so the building would have to be upgraded and renovated to be handicap accessible and better suited for its new use as a museum for the town.
Green spaces are at a minimum downtown, parking lots and empty lots dominate most of the landscape, other than Library Park and Bell Tower Park, neither of which is located downtown, just within walking distance. This proposal includes a number of green spaces to take place of a few of the underserved parking lots. On Broadway and 2nd streets, the sidewalk shall be extended into the on-street parking area and a parkway shall be included, which shall planting boxes, outdoor seating areas for restaurants, and display areas for other retailers. In order to maintain enough parking for the developing downtown, smaller parking garages with an aesthetic to blend into the downtown shall be built over other existing large parking lots on both Broadway and 2nd Street. In regards to parking lots, the parking lot located at the intersection of 2nd and Locust street currently hosts a farmers market on Saturdays from 7am-11am between May and October. A small shelter like structure with a small office space and storage shall be designed to be placed at this location. The facility will be designed to be a multiuse facility as to not leave it sitting empty for most of the week and year, the community and community groups could use the building for a meeting space through the spring, fall, and summer.
Centralia has a carillon located just north of downtown and next to a major highway running through town. Centralia's carillon is the sixth largest in the world, standing at one hundred and sixty-nine feet and contains sixty-nine bells, ranging from 20 pounds to over eleven thousand. The carillon and the park beneath it are always empty and without being familiar of the area, you'd never know it existed, it's hard to tell what it even is from a distance. The city does put on concerts from time to time, however they are very short and no other events really take place at the park below, and it stands empty nearly all year. The redesign of the downtown is to encourage a travel in this direction toward the carillon as well as the library, library park, and Pittenger Bandshell, where events could easily be coordinated.
Outside of Downtown Centralia
Centralia has much to offer outside of the downtowns. There are a number of parks with a number of different uses, Fairview, Foundation, and Rotary Park are all different in how they are used and designed. However, unless there are ball games at Rotary or Fairview they are rarely used, and there is little traffic at Foundation unless the Balloon Fest is going on, other than those using the Championship Disc Golf Course, even though it includes two fishing ponds, one of which is used for ice skating in the winter, an exercise trail, hiking trail, a number of shelters, and an outdoor amphitheater. These beautiful pristine parks must be utilized in many more ways than just the current, and Centralia as a city should push and market these parks, especially Foundation and Rotary, as Foundation is not signed well and would easily be missed and Rotary Park is on the south edge of town. Fairview Park is in a prime location, however, the history that sits there isn't well known, as there is an Illinois Central Railroad 2500 Steam Engine, only one of two left in Illinois from the booming railroad days. There are also a number of historic aircraft located in Fairview Park. A US Air Force F-105 Thunderchief which was flown widely during the Vietnam war, as well as a USAF T-33 T-Bird, which was used during the Korean War and a US Army Nike Ajax missile, which was one of the first surface-to-air guided missile (SAM) systems, which began use in the 1940's. The history of these is not well noted in the park at all and such notation and advertisement of these historic pieces is included in this proposal.
Centralia has two lakes that have been underserved, the first, and closest lake is Raccoon Lake. Raccoon Lake has twenty miles of shoreline and seven hundred and seven acres of water, but has no beach and just one boat dock. Fishing and fishing tournaments are popular, but other than that, the lake is used very little. A large beach area shall be developed on the lake and the lake should be used for more recreational activities, like skiing, tubing, et cetera. Lake Centralia covers more than four hundred acres and is currently better utilized for recreation, however access is very limited with no beach and just one boat ramp. Both of these lakes could be more of a draw if geared toward recreational activities other than just fishing and easier access. Another building proposed is to house the Centralia Sports Hall of Fame. The current facility is located on the second floor of the city hall. Centralia has a rich sports history and for all of the memorabilia to be housed properly, a new building should be prominently placed in town, instead of hid away in the second floor of city hall. Centralia High School's basketball team, known as the Orphans, was the "winningest" basketball in the nation for decades, their run not ending until the early 1990's. The school owns numerous state championships in a number of sports, the first coming as early as 1918. Centralia has also been the hometown of a number of record holders at the high school and collegiate level, professional athletes, a Globetrotter, and even an Olympian. There has been more than enough sports history to fill a number of buildings, let alone a hallway on the second floor of city hall. There are a number of historic artists and pieces in Centralia, as well as a number of emerging creative types living in Centralia, and with the encouragement of an artist colony downtown, an art museum could easily be opened downtown as well.
Centralia has an award winning hospital that was recently renovated and high school that was built just seven years ago. So many of the important health and education facilities are top of the line. However, Evers Field, where Centralia High School plays their home football games, was recently condemned by the State Board of Education. The high school got that ruling overturned for this football season, however by next year, a new facility has to be built, or Evers Field renovated to meet the expectations of the State Board of Education,. The current site of Evers Field presents an interesting set of design issues. A new turf, scoreboard, and field goal posts were installed at Evers Field in the past couple years, however parking is a huge issue at the facility. Cars line streets not designed for street parking or in private driveways, as the only designated parking is the small practice field. There is space at the new high school for the field and the expansive school parking lot could be used during games on Friday nights. That is why this proposal will design a new football field at the location of the new high school, as the scoreboard and field goal posts are removable and could be relocated to the new site.
Centralia has two lakes that have been underserved, the first, and closest lake is Raccoon Lake. Raccoon Lake has twenty miles of shoreline and seven hundred and seven acres of water, but has no beach and just one boat dock. Fishing and fishing tournaments are popular, but other than that, the lake is used very little. A large beach area shall be developed on the lake and the lake should be used for more recreational activities, like skiing, tubing, et cetera. Lake Centralia covers more than four hundred acres and is currently better utilized for recreation, however access is very limited with no beach and just one boat ramp. Both of these lakes could be more of a draw if geared toward recreational activities other than just fishing and easier access.
Centralia has such a rich history and even though there is little geographic context, there is a plethora of historical and other forms of context. Centralia has is a true community of those who care about their town and rally around each other when there is a goal or challenge. This town has the potential to return to its old glory days, the glory days will just have a different look focusing around different aspects of life here.
This proposal implements new businesses and building types downtown, a refocusing on local natural features and advertisement of such natural features, and a new, much needed, football field to match the facilities at the new high school. Centralia has the people and drive to do it, they just need a plan.