MURPHYSBORO — An object in motion tends to stay in motion.
That is how Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens has described his city’s recent growth in economic development and overall better feeling about where the municipality is heading.
The city most recently made headlines after Solar Alliance announced it would move into the old Curwood building in the center of town. The plans for the property include a solar array at the northern end, a base of operations plant and contract with a tenant that uses a lot of electricity, such as a company that specializes in cryptocurrency or Bitcoin mining.
The Curwood deal is the result of a 2015 marketing campaign Stephens spearheaded — other government agencies helped share in the cost — for which he produced promotional videos and sent glass apples to 350 companies.
It is just the latest example of things staying motion in Murphysboro. Throughout the past five years, independent businesses, including Brew’s Brothers, Rule of Pie, and Molly’s Pint, have opened in town and have thrived.
Beyond those new businesses, 17th Street BBQ is expanding in Murphysboro to include a sauce factory, plus the city has constructed a new wastewater treatment plant, lauched its own Sunset Concert series, and watched one of the former Brown Shoe Factory buildings be demolished to make way for several soccer fields.
In the works are the demolition of the remaining Brown Shoe Factory building on South 19th Street, construction of the Holiday Inn Express at the intersection of Illinois 13 and 127, a new city website, and the widening of Seventh Street near Big Muddy Brewing Co. to make it easier for semitrailers to travel on the road.
“I have taken the attitude and tried to push it into the employees and City Council that we always start from a position of, yes, we can do what somebody wants to do, until we can’t,” Stephens said.
He said it’s not to the city’s benefit to have negative feelings about a project before it knows anything about it.
“We don’t need to be a hockey goalie just trying to stop bad things from happening,” he said. “We need to be out there trying to facilitate people’s success.”
While Stephens is happy to point out the town’s successes, he is also aware that there have been announcements that haven’t turned out the way they were planned. One such announcement is Sovereign Health’s 2015 acquisition of the former Jackson County Rehab and Care facility on North 14th Street.
Stephens said the company is still paying the taxes and mowing the grass, but none of the things the company planned to do — including hiring several people and operating an inpatient drug treatment facility — have come to fruition. The city had held a couple of contested public hearings about rezoning the property in order to make the deal happen.
In June 2017, FBI agents raided several Sovereign Health offices for alleged financial improprieties. Stephens said he has been told there are no current charges against the company.
At the current state of the community, Stephens said it seems like there is a renewed hope in town. He compared it to coming home to a clean house after spending several days cleaning the home.
“You just sort of feel better,” he said. “If people have confidence in their community, people are more likely to spend money there and invest there.”
Although Stephens doesn’t want to take all the credit himself — the work is a collaborative effort with city organizations and the City Council, he said — others are happy to do it for him.
Molly Blew, owner of Molly’s Pint with her husband, Nick, said a big part of Murphysboro’s growth is due to the mayor.
“We have a young and innovative mayor that is open to collaboration with ... well, just about anybody,” she said. “New businesses seem to be popping up everywhere and even though some of our city’s infrastructure is aging — our sidewalks and streets to be specific — I see active planning and improvement to fix those things.”
Blew also pointed to neighborhood community groups, such as the Friends of Murphysboro, which secured funds to install a new splash fountain for children, and Murphysboro Main Street, which takes pride in fixing the downtown and made Christmastime feel special in the city.
“I think the secret to the continued success will be that there are so many people that are truly in love with this town and are working toward keeping it great and improving it so that it continues to grow,” she said.
Murphysboro City Councilman Herby Voss also had high praise for the community groups.
“These folks truly enjoy working together for the betterment of our city,” he said. “You can see it in new events like 'Murphysboro Hometown Christmas' and growing staples like 'The Big Muddy Monster Brew Fest' and the region’s best 'Cruise Night.'
“That energetic vibe from local leaders sets us apart,” he said.
Voss also said the mayor is the best part of the city’s renewed success.
“There are a lot of small towns wrestling with the same issues we are,” he said. “When all things remain equal, between competing municipalities, our mayor has quite simply worked harder. The new Holiday Inn Express and Solar Alliance projects can be directly attributed to Stephens’ won’t-quit attitude.”
For Voss’ own reasoning for getting involved, he said serving on the Murphysboro City Council is nonpartisan and the labels of Democrat and Republican are left outside of council chambers.
“It’s why I felt comfortable running for office in 2015,” he said. “It’s not to say that debate doesn’t get contentious. But we are like-minded when it comes to breaking down barriers and finding solutions.”
Looking toward the future, Blew said she knows growth is never easy and it takes financial resources and time, but her family has the fortune of knowing there are several people working very hard to make the town better.
“We stayed because we loved the people and the beautiful architecture of the building that we were in and eventually bought and renovated,” she said. “We’ll continue to stay because now we’re a part of the community, we can see a future for ourselves here.”
Rick Stapel, who owns Rule of Pie with his wife, Miranda Stapel, said Murphysboro is home to some talented people and the region will continue to support good products and quality service.
“Murphysboro is full of that,” he said.
When it comes to investing in Murphysboro, Stapel said the easy answer is that this is their home.
“We don’t really have a choice but to invest. I don’t know how else to put it,” he said. “This is where we are and have always been. This is where we want to be.”
Stephens said the next focal point is to look at expanding the business park on North Seventh Street, because if the city is going to continue to recruit businesses, it should probably find somewhere to put them. However, the mayor said the City Council and the community can come up with something productive.
“The council has been pretty receptive of my ideas and they have also put the brakes on me when I need it,” he said. “I feel like it is my job to push the agenda forward and with their collaboration and also their caution we make a pretty good team.”