Given the number and frequency of activities and attractions in downtown Libertyville, it's hard to imagine the stretch of several blocks along busy Milwaukee Avenue once was more a pass-through than destination.
But as in many small communities, there was a dark time that lasted for decades as shopping malls siphoned visitors and customers from traditional downtowns.
Locals remained faithful, but 30% of downtown Libertyville storefronts were empty in a continuing cycle of decline where building owners couldn't or wouldn't invest.
Then MainStreet came to town and a gradual but powerful change took hold.
Last Thursday quietly marked the 30th anniversary of MainStreet Libertyville, a nonprofit founded to preserve and promote the area.
What began in 1989 as an almost last-ditch attempt to spark reinvestment and attract business and visitors has grown to a marketing machine that sponsors 50 days of annual events and festivals.
Volunteers, who contribute about 4,000 hours annually, have been the backbone in a downtown renaissance that began a steady ascent on April 25, 1989, with the formation of MainStreet Libertyville.
"Starting with that moment and it's only become stronger, the residents of the community have taken ownership and taken a new level of pride in their downtown community," said MJ Seiler, a lifelong resident whose grandfather opened a paint and wallpaper store downtown in the 1940s. He eventually opened his own storefront for a realty business.
Several attempts were made to rekindle interest downtown. "As much effort and good will people put into them, it just didn't work," he said.
An original MainStreet board member, Seiler also was one of three property owners who had upgraded their building facades hoping it would catch on.
Another was Dan Mayworm, who bought and renovated what is now Libertyville Bank & Trust Co. at 507 N. Milwaukee Ave.
With village financial backing, Mayworm arranged a series of meetings with representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which pioneered the MainStreet program.
Mayworm, regarded as the "founder" of MainStreet Libertyville, said a structured strategy was needed to awaken the sleepy downtown.
But the national group required the community to guarantee it would invest $100,000 per year for the first three years, Mayworm said. Volunteers held teas and coffees and Seiler and others knocked on doors to raise $50,000 a year, which was matched by the village.
"We sold the village on the idea it was a public/private relationship," Mayworm recalled. "The biggest thing to me was the overwhelming response from the residents, even more so than the downtown businesses."
Early volunteers included Pam Hume, who moved to Libertyville from Geneva in 1980. In 2010, she was named MainStreet's executive director.
"It was tough," she said of the downtown landscape. "I became a volunteer and you could see what could happen. You had hope."
Libertyville's program has 700 members, among the highest in the country, according to Hume. In 1997, Libertyville won the Great American Main Street Award as best in the U.S.
Libertyville is one of 10 programs in Illinois and 840 in the U.S. accredited by Main Street America, a program of the National Main Street Center.
To receive the designation, Main Streets must meet 10 performance standards, including fostering strong public/private partnerships and actively preserving historic buildings.
The village's $50,000-per-year support was essential to initial success but was cut during the economic downturn and has been $10,000 annually since.
MainStreet nearly folded during that time but rebounded and is considered among the strongest programs in Illinois and nationally.
The village's designation of the commercial area as a special financing district in 1986 has been a key.
As building values increased, the added property taxes generated were dedicated to public projects, including a new streetscape and two parking decks.
The most recent information available from the village shows that since 1986, nearly 200 projects have generated about $91 million in private investment/renovation.
Property value increased from $11.8 million to $53.2 million and rents jumped from $8 a square foot to as high as $31 per square foot.
"People are looking for a genuine experience," Seiler said. "What's more genuine than a 150-year-old downtown?"