By MELISSA CROCKETT MESKE
Have you ever wondered how we wound up here? Not the kind of “God-created” versus “evolution” debate, but rather how someone you just walked by ended up in the same place as you. A kind of thinking like: “Out of all the places in all the world you could be, why here?”
It was a deep-seeded curiosity inside Alton resident Roger Lewis that prompted him to dig deeper, to ask others just that:
Why here? Why Alton?
It is also the seed that, once planted and nourished, led to an Alton Main Street production debuting right before Christmas in December 2022 and titled, quite appropriately, Choosing Alton.
Lewis said that Choosing Alton was an idea initially originating from two stories he had heard that paralleled yet a third; stories that included one of a young couple that had moved into Lewis’s historic Alton neighborhood from south St. Louis.
“Very south,” Lewis noted. “I thought: How could they have come to know Alton well enough to move here and make it their home?”
The couple, now among Lewis’s neighbors, had been searching online for their next home at that time when they found the one they loved. “But it was in Alton. Still, they fell in love with it. They saw it online, decided to visit Alton and tour it, and fell in love,” Lewis explained.
That couple is Matt and Laura Windisch, who now manage Flock Food Truck Park in Alton. They lived a full life in St. Louis, but chose to make Alton their new hometown, also eventually bringing their siblings (and spouses) to Alton. Matt later enticed his best friend to Alton as well.
The second story Lewis heard was of another couple who bought a home down the street from him after discovering Alton a bit by surprise while traveling “the back way” from St. Charles on Route 94.
Mulling over these stories brought to Lewis the idea of telling the stories of why here – why people were choosing Alton over anywhere else they could be.
It was during the COVID pandemic that the third story paralleling the other two came to life. Lewis was at an Alton post office branch, and as he was exiting, he held the door open for another post office patron.
“This was not an uncommon action,” said Lewis. “Yet the lady surprisingly said to me, ‘that’s the nicest thing that’s happened to me in the last nine months.’ And I thought, if her words were true, they were just too sad.”
That compelled Lewis to pay it forward, to try and restore a sense of hope and community in his hometown somehow.
His initial action was to buy a couple of $250 gift cards, one from The Post Commons and one for Germania Brew Haus, then give them back to the respective establishment to pay for customers’ purchases throughout the day.
In retrospect, however, Lewis said, “It just didn’t reach enough. I still needed to do something more.”
That’s when the idea of Choosing Alton moved from inside Lewis’s head to reality.
Lewis shared his idea with his fellow board members at Alton Main Street, asking if they would have any interest in producing a video series that told the stories of why here, why Alton.
“I pitched the idea of producing a video series about people who moved here from someplace else, or why they came back after moving away. Why they chose Alton. It was a small idea in my mind,” said Lewis. “But one thing was imperative: It had to be focused on creating and sharing positivity. I thought maybe it could then be something simply shared on Alton Main Street’s website for promotional purposes.” Alton Main Street board members said yes.
Then Lewis found himself sharing the idea with Alton-based attorney John Simmons, a friend and colleague for more than two decades. Lewis had retired from the Simmons Hanly Conroy firm where he had served as Simmons’s executive assistant. Lewis and Simmons remained close friends following Lewis’s retirement, and when he shared his idea for this video series with Simmons, John immediately said he loved it and wanted to fund it.
“If it weren’t for John Simmons, I’d still be looking for funders,” said Lewis. “John said he loved it and wanted to pay for it, but I sat on his endorsement for a few days initially. We talked again, and when I presented him with cost details and a budget, John still said ‘do it.’”
“It was because of John’s backing that I was able to pull in Shift Agency to professionally produce the series and apply their massively creative talents, to hire the incredible Emily Guyan as our makeup artist, and to access talents like those of Kris Larson to serve as the series host.”
Several other St. Louis professionals were also brought into the production as actors and directors, as well as in other critical roles.
“In my mind, I had always referred to it as ‘Choosing Alton,’” Lewis added. “The title stuck.”
Debuting on Dec. 23, 2022, Choosing Alton is an Alton Main Street production, viewable on the AMS website and as a YouTube series.
Its producer: Roger Lewis, himself a hometown transplant, choosing Alton as his permanent home 11 years ago.
Viewers can visit online at https://DowntownAlton.com/ChoosingAlton to take in the 12-part series.
Featured now-Alton residents sharing their stories in Choosing Alton include:
Damian and Dr. Dee Dee Jones: One is an Alton native returned, the other a Northern Virginian turned Riverbend resident. Husband and wife, they both have one thing in common: They chose Alton. Now 22 years later, they’ve grown to love the town, and even more so — the people.
Matt and Sandra Anderson: Being from Alton, Matt always knew there was a special charm to the town. But when he and his wife, Sandra, moved back in 2020 after living and teaching overseas, they quickly realized that Alton now boasts a food and drink scene that rivals those that they experienced on their travels. In settling down here, Matt’s intuition was reaffirmed that Alton did in fact hold a charm, and a thriving neighborhood to raise his family.
Matt and Laura Windisch: Matt and Laura didn’t choose Alton; they firmly believe that Alton chose them. Their hearts and families were in Missouri before taking the plunge, but the Riverbend was calling. The two of them now run Alton’s successful food truck park, Flock, in addition to Stacked Burger Bar in St. Louis.
Hugh and Cheryl Halter: The diversity and missional call are core reasons the Halters feel such affection for the town of Alton. Portland natives and long-time Colorado residents, this family chose Alton, having a sense it was “something they were supposed to do.” They now incubate businesses through their nonprofit coffee shop, brunch kitchen and event space called Post Commons.
Jenna Muscarella: Alton springboarded a sense of wonder and creativity for Muscarella as a little girl. From the architecture to the scenery, colors and flavors of the town, she believes the uniqueness of Alton cultivated her own artistic eye as an adult. And while Muscarella believes Alton has experienced a renaissance in recent years, the structural integrity of the city she’s known and loved has remained the same.
Martha Phillips and Kieran McGuane: McGuane and Phillips experienced vastly different environments in the early years of their lives. Kieran, born in Ireland and accustomed to frequent travel through his work in insurance, changed course and found his passion in culinary school. Martha had a career in law and grew up in the Midwest. Their paths crossed years later and as fate would have it, they got married and chose to live in Alton. The two of them now run a successful restaurant, Epicurean Fare, in historic downtown and are among the innovators who are embracing business development and cultural diversity through food.
Shawn and Alison Neace: The Neaces share a deep appreciation for two things: Music and the Alton School District. From the time she was a young student entering the district years back, Alton schools welcomed Alison with opportunities and resources aplenty to express herself through music. Now, years later, the Alton music community has done the same for her own children.
Penny Schmidt: Schmidt was born in New York, grew up in Elsah, and then returned to New York to start a gallery at the ripe age of 26. Years later while visiting her father in Alton after 9/11, Penny and her husband came to a transitional point in their lives and began to rethink their paths. With a renewed lens of the Riverbend, Penny restored an old building that is now known as residential living space, Mississippi Landing.
Sage Macklay and David Nadolsky: From farming in Europe to working in a science museum in Charlotte, to eventually opening Funky Planet Toys in Alton, Sage and David have spent time in many different cultures. Their experiences were ultimately building blocks that lead them to their forever home. With the desire to start a family, own a house and start a business, Alton checked all their boxes.
Michael Snider: Local artist and maker, Michael Snider — commonly known for his brainchild, the “Kooliverse” — is a self-proclaimed Deadhead from Indiana. After years of touring with the Grateful Dead, he discovered the joy of like-mindedness that he now experiences in the Alton community. Although homelessness led him here, he’s found a home in this town for 18 years, surrounded by genuine people and an emerging art scene.
Leo Portal: A national Zillow search led Leo Portal to discover Alton and the historic real estate that he was looking for. Originally from Lima, Peru, Portal’s first exposure to the U.S. was the Bay Area — but the Midwest is where he is now established. What surprised him most about Alton was the sense of interconnectedness among people with different backgrounds and sexual orientations, something that you don’t often find in small towns.
Kim Hagele and David Zielinski: David and Kim are among those who grew up in Alton, left to get a taste of life in other cities, and then returned to Alton to settle. They believe that individuals who experience the world outside of Alton then come back bring a new flavor to our town — making this a place that has the ability to change and evolve through its people.
“This is a view of Alton from other people’s eyes,” Lewis emphasized. “The people featured could be anywhere, but they are here. In Alton. And here to stay. They’ve established lives and livelihoods here for the long haul. You’ll see iconic scenes of Alton featured as the series first gets underway, but it’s the 12 stories of the featured Alton immigrants that are the most fascinating stories to know.”
“Storytelling is growing in importance as an impactful method of conveying nuanced information,” said Alton Main Street Executive Director McGibany. “Finding creative ways to tell our story about why Alton is a great place to live and work is the ideal way to address population decline, which continues to be an issue in many small towns across America.
“Our residents’ high quality of life and the rich social network that they experience here were masterfully captured in these episodes. We’re ready and just waiting for Hulu and Netflix to come calling now,” McGibany added.
“A theme that emerged throughout the interviews was the many accolades about Alton’s impressive variety of locally-owned shops and restaurants, and how having access to these small businesses improves the quality of life for our residents,” McGibany said.
“We hope that the videos inspire people to take a close look at moving to Alton. Highlighting Alton’s natural beauty and small-town charm along with its proximity to St. Louis are major selling points. We know people are looking for places to live, and places to work, more often through a virtual lens. This video series will help tell our story,” McGibany added.
“Word has already gotten out about this series, and the enthusiasm has been overwhelming,” Lewis noted. “We have enough stories now to do a Season 2 if it comes to be. The dream now: To expand the series into segments – such as Choosing Alton: Business, Choosing Alton: Music, Choosing Alton: Education, and so on. To continue telling Alton’s stories.”
Cameron Ahlvers co-owns Shift Agency, the company that pulled the vision Roger Lewis first had into this innovative and creative storytelling series. “I was just moved by Roger’s story,” said Ahlvers. “It touched me, and I could relate to it. That is why I was excited to be a part of this story. And this could be a beautiful template for other cities as well.”
Ahlvers himself moved to Alton roughly two years ago from St. Louis. He bought a house in Alton as well, after falling in love with the community and all it had to offer. When production wrapped, Ahlvers noted, “I didn’t want it to end. It’s been amazing. People have shared their stories of coming here from extraordinary places all over the world. They’ve chosen Alton and stayed.”
Shift Agency’s Nick Bifano added, “Choosing Alton is a convergence of time, talent, people, energy and resources of a city in revival. We want people to have hope, and to dream again.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story also appears in the January 2023 print edition of the Illinois Business Journal.)