WEST FRANKFORT — Mayor Tom Jordan is reinvesting in his city, and rolling the dice on revitalizing his hometown.
Jordan, who served as a firefighter for several years, was elected as mayor of West Frankfort five years ago. In 2015, he put his legacy on the line by purchasing the West Frankfort Outlet Mall in hopes of spurring economic development just off Interstate 57.
“I am the mayor that bought the mall,” he said. “One day they will talk about how great of an idea that was, or they will say that didn’t work out.”
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Jordan feels like it was "100 percent" the right thing to do, because he needed to show good faith in the city, so others will feel the same.
“If the city isn’t willing to invest in itself, how can I ask a developers for millions of their money,” he asked.
Jordan said owning the mall and the surrounding land also gives the city the opportunity to speak directly with developers, instead of being the middle man. He said the mall is almost breaking even on expenses from the rent from Vanity Fair, and the city is aggressively looking for tenants to fill the additional space.
He said there is about 40,000 square feet available.
Outside of the 20-acre mall, Jordan said there are about six to eight acres in front of the mall and another five to six acres on the east side.
“Our goal is to find something to entice you to pull off the interstate,” he said. “Our first thought was a nice restaurant that is not in the area. But we are not limited to just that.”
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The outlet mall area is also covered by a Tax Increment District and an Enterprise Zone, so developers have incentives to come in and build, while offsetting some costs.
The city has also taken steps to work on its downtown. It has invested money into a façade repair program for downtown businesses, Jordan said. He said in an efforts to make the area look better, the city will match up to $2,500 any business that wants to fix or update its façade.
Jordan said the city is also looking to put benches, flowers, trash cans and anything to beautify the area, making it more attractive to visitors.
“We want the downtown to look like a downtown,” he said.
Morthland College has been a big help in the way of shooting some energy into West Frankfort — Jordan called the liberal arts Christian college a “lightning rod.” He said the college is committed to being downtown, and it has been very active.
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“I want to help them anyway I can,” Jordan said.
Tim Morthland, president and founder of Morthland College, said from the college’s inception, it has made a commitment to work with the community leadership.
“A college is a strong economic engine as a stand-alone enterprise,” he said in a written statement. “However, when a college embraces an entrepreneurial outreach, the impact on community development can be far reaching.
“In the case of Morthland College, we are now seeing the impact of additional economic development in health services, in commercial development, and job creation.”
Stephanie Parton, vice president of campus development at Morthland, said through recent expansions, the college employs more than 100 people.
She said the college has plans to construct more academic buildings, starting with a library in its next phase of development.
West Frankfort is also home to a few longtime businesses, including Dixie Cream Donuts on West Main Street.
Sue Forgatch of Dixie Cream said her husband, Gene, started the business in 1955 by himself, and the business has managed to stay in the family.
She said the mayor is trying to create change with the times.
“Change is evitable,” Forgatch said. “If we do not adapt and adopt, we will sink.”
She said West Frankfort is made up of good people and good families, and even though the town has declined since the days when coal mines were a big industry, there are still good things to look forward to.