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Mayor says station, mall have city poised for strong year

IBJ Mar15 Page 13 Image 0002    ALTON — Brant Walker has had a busy first term as mayor, learning how to run a city of 27,290 even as the community undergoes a renaissance of reconstruction.
    A year from now, he says, the city “won’t be recognizable.”
    Among big things in the works, he points to:
        – A new $24 million multimodal bus and train station serving high speed rail — a replacement for the aging Amtrak station along College Avenue. Water and sewer lines are now being installed with full construction likely under way by this fall. The location is the former Robert P. Wadlow Municipal Golf Course along Homer Adams Parkway. According to grant requirements, the project must be done by December 2016.
        – A developer, Orion, is seeking out conventional financing to move forward on a planned, four-story, 110-room hotel and 10,500-square-foot conference center at the foot of Henry Street, on the city riverfront, overlooking the Clark Bridge. Positive feasibility studies have already been done, he said. The developer is expected to report back on how to pay for it all in May or June.
        – A rebirth of Alton Square, which has landed multiple new tenants, including a Ross Dress for Less and a Hibbett Sports, a sporting goods store, with both to be opened later this year.  
        – Planned aesthetic improvements to Landmarks Boulevard, meant to draw attention to the downtown core.
        – Some $750,000 in improvements to Riverview Park including a gazebo, observation stand and new sunken garden pathways, to be funded by a state Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development grant.
        – Paving of College Avenue from State House Circle all the way to Illinois Route 140, which will include a sidewalk to run to run the length of Rock Spring Park. A sewer separator project is now under way along a length of College near Alton Middle School in advance of the paving plan.
        – The southern part of State Street is also going to be torn up this year for another sewer separator, part of a compliance demand by the federal government. State represents the first of four phases of such projects over a period of years, Walker said. All of the work falls under unfunded mandates, he said. The city will pay for the first year’s work out of existing sewer funds, he said.
        – The ball diamond is being rebuilt at Rock Spring Park, with PEP Grant funds. A fountain has also been restored there after years of sitting idle.
    The mayor, who was elected in April 2013, said he’s increasingly focusing on the city’s inner city parks, which he believes have not gotten enough attention in recent years. He provided a reporter with a two-page list of park projects that have been or will be done.
    “It’s quality of life issues. I’ve lived here for a long time and it seems like our city kind of let itself go. You hear cities talk about sustainability, livability, green spaces, walking trails, biking. We have all that. We kind of looked away from it for whatever reason. But what city has 19 parks? We do. Or bike trails? We have a lot of what everybody is looking for and trying to build. We just have to fix it up.”
    Regarding the train station, Alton hopes to benefit from the fact that the high speed rail connection starts and stops in the city. There are no plans as yet to extend high speed rail to St. Louis, which means more people may travel to Alton simply to take advantage of the connection, Walker said.
    The transportation stop will be several hundred yards off Homer Adams Parkway and because of a natural slope in the topography will keep most of the development from being clearly visible. The main entrance into the complex will come from Golf Road, with all new infrastructure to be built from there.
    Director of Development and Housing Greg Caffey said 37 acres of the overall 55-acre site has been reserved for future commercial development. A large area in the center of the old golf course will remain a conservation easement because of a creek that flows through that area.
    Collectively the project is being called the Wadlow Town Center. The Madison County Transit District and U.S. and Illinois Departments of Transportation are all contributing toward the work with the bulk of the funding coming from a $13.8 million federal TIGER Discretionary Grant that was part of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
    Terms of the grant call for 225 parking spaces at the train/bus site. Some parking space may also be dedicated to long-term, pay parking, Caffey said.
    Right now, the plan calls for the bus depot to contain six bays for transit buses and additional uncovered bays for coach tour buses. he said.
    As part of the project, Golf Road will be rebuilt and realigned, with improvements made on both sides of Homer Adams Parkway.
    Two nearby roads, Buckmaster Lane and Baron Commerce Parkway, will also be improved, Caffey said.
    The Plan Commission was scheduled to meet on the final plan on March 3. The city must submit the final design to the Federal Railroad Association for approval by June 1.
    Walker said the city has enjoyed a run of new investment of late. In January this year alone, the city issued $1.5 million in commercial permits, its fastest start in years.
    The work at Alton Square represents some of the most significant progress in years. Walker said the mall “has turned the corner and is no longer on life support” and that most of the first floor is now taken with new leases.
    In recent months, the Maurices clothing store spent $250,000 to renovate and move across the corridor from its former site. Hibbett Sports took out $250,000 in permits and Ross Dress for Less took out another $1.525 million. The latter two are now renovating the locations.
    “It’s big, it’s really going to turn that mall around. National retailers normally wouldn’t have looked at an Alton Square Mall. With Ross’ we’ll get looks from other retailers. I would consider Ross as an anchor,” Walker said.
    Ross is taking over the former Maurices space and more, all the way to the Macy’s, in excess of 30,000 square feet.
    Hibbett Sports will locate across from Ross.
    Even before the holiday season, Walker said the city noticed sales tax revenues picking up and wonders how much of the traffic might be coming from across the river. He speculates that the shutdown of Jamestown Mall and possibly even the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., have contributed.
    “People are making that trek across the bridge in good numbers right now,” he said.
    Walker noted a few other recent, sizeable investments, including a $450,000 makeover of the AT&T store and a $730,000 revamp of the Goodwill Store, both on the parkway.
    Downtown Alton’s entertainment district is doing as well as ever and spreading, he said, noting the Old Bakery Brewing Co., a microbrewery that opened last month on Landmarks Boulevard, and now construction of Elijah P’s Burgers and Brews at 401 N. Piasa St.
    “There’s a ton of things to do and enjoy in the city. Even if you don’t work here there’s no reason in the world you wouldn’t choose to live here,” Walker said.

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