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[Sat Jan 24 2004]

NASHVILLE - Rumors of the death of Main Street America have been greatly exaggerated. At least in Nashville, that is.

While retailers in other small towns across Southern Illinois have succumbed to the pressures of regional shopping malls and big box discounters, Nashville's merchants have held their own and, in doing so, have preserved the integrity and identity of this Washington County community.

"A lot of towns see hell and havoc in their downtowns. You get bigger chains in," Bradley Small, president of The Farmers and Merchants National Bank, said. "Nashville has been able to attract smaller versions of that which allows us to keep our small-town atmosphere."

A walk down Nashville's main drag attests to this. Flanking both sides of the street is a mix of retail other towns in Southern Illinois can only remember. Nashville has two hardware stores, a sporting good store, boutiques, two furniture outlets, a family-owned variety store, a movie theater, restaurants, car dealerships and a grocery store, among others.

Brian Rusiewski is manager of the 8,000-square-foot Kroger. At that size, the company-owned store is an anomaly for a corporation that typically battles other supermarket giants by building mega-centers.

"There are others our size but it is a thing of the past. They are few and far between," the Nashville native said.

Rusiewski believes the success of his operation can be attributed to a conviction by town residents to support their local merchants.

"Nashville is very supportive of its downtown. We are very supportive of each other," he said. "Business people are reluctant to let a Wal-Mart come in and the city has been very successful at keeping them out."

Up the street Sara Habbe works at the store, Lee's Variety, her father Lee Roy Borowiak started 50 years ago this April. She said that in addition to the loyal customer base, the store has survived by changing with the times.

In addition to general merchandise, the store expanded into quilting and fabric, bulk candy and sporting goods, which is operated as a separate store adjacent to the main enterprise.

"We've diversified in a lot of ways to keep open," she said. "We are small and competition is only 30 miles away. The success of merchants in this town is because we keep going; keep sticking it out. There is unity here."

A "shop locally" ethos is one many towns try to promote, but the allure of the bargain discounters often makes it difficult for such a wish to become reality. It's different in Nashville.

"Our merchants aren't trying to cut each others' throats," Cheryl Zapp, executive director of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, said. "There is an attitude of working together. They are very supportive of each other."

A vibrant Main Street is a measure of the health of a community, but it isn't what sustains a town. It takes jobs to keep people around to do their shopping locally. Nashville residents believe they have been blessed with the good fortune of being home to some of Southern Illinois' largest employers.

North of downtown on Illinois 127 is where the heart of Nashville's employment lies. Three major employers are there - NASCOTE, a maker of automobile components with a work force of about 1,000; NIT, a sister company to NASCOTE employing about 500 workers and Norrenbern, a trucking and warehouse outfit with a staff of 275.

"Industry is the base of any economic development," Mayor Ray Kolweier said. "Without employment you have nothing."

It hasn't always been so rosy for the town. It lost its largest employer - National Mine Service Co. - in 1983 and Kolweier said Nashville was in a dilemma that other Southern Illinois communities understand too well - how to replace 240 good-paying jobs.

"Our unemployment rate was high," Kolweier said. "and our promotions committee went out looking for industry."

It didn't take long before the town struck gold. Canadian-based Magna International (NASCOTE's parent company) was looking for a U.S. site to build a $44 million auto parts factory. Nashville tossed its hat in the ring and won out over 50 other Midwest communities. The company initially said it would employ 600. The work force now stands about 1,000.

"They wanted a central location but we didn't have any land under option so we went out and got it," Kolweier, who was on the city council at the time, said. "With the help of the state we were able to put together a good incentive package."

The good news didn't stop there. A year after Magna said it would build in Nashville in 1986, it, along with West German-based partner Lignotock GmbH, announced a second auto components plant would be built in the town. Ligma Corp. - now called NIT - broke ground in late 1987.

Available land, infrastructure and access to transportation - the plants sit less than two miles from Interstate 64 - are primary concerns to plant operators, but Kolweier said that the quality of life a community provides is also of importance to companies. That was Nashville's ace in the hole.

"We have a clean town, good schools and a quality work force," he said.

Tom Kirchner, owner of Norrenbern Truck Service, said progressive attitude of Nashville leaders have paved the way for the town's industrial growth.

Kirchner bought the one-truck operation in 1981 and moved the operation to Nashville a few years later. He said the city has worked with him hand-in-hand as the company grew. The opening of the two plants there helped jump-start his outfit, but the city was instrumental in accommodating the company's growth. Today, Norrenbern has a fleet of 130 trucks and 1.3 million square feet under roof.

"They are good people to do business with. They are very progressive and live up to their word," he said. "Nashville will give you a chance, but you'd better tell them the truth."

The success in growing industry humbles the mayor who understands that the impact of having those jobs reaches far beyond the corporate limits. Nashville is considered a regional employer.

"I don't want to brag on what we've got. I think we are fortunate to be able to help the surrounding towns through tough times," he said.

The jobs mean more than that to the town, Zapp said. It gives young people the opportunity to stay to their hometown.

"They don't have to go elsewhere to find good jobs. They can find them right at home," she said.

But the job sector growth and low unemployment in Washington County - 4.7 percent as of November 2003 - hasn't resulted in a population spurt for Nashville. It has remained steady at around 3,200. Part of the reason, Kolweier said, is because Nashville doesn't have grand plans to grow.

"The population hasn't grown at all, but I don't know if its the desire of Nashville to be a town of 6,000 to 7,000 people," he said.

Others point to high property values and high property taxes. The equalized assessed valuation in the city ranges from about 6.8 to 8 percent per $100.

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"There is no question property values are higher here," Bob Spencer of Spencer Real Estate said. "We also don't see a lot of real estate transfers. People like to keep it in the family."

Spencer estimates there are only 30 to 40 real estate transactions a year. Raw land that is available is pricey - ranging from $12,000 to $22,000 per acre.

The scarcity of property, its cost and high taxes are the few complaints one will hear about from Nashville residents. But as Kirchner put it, "You get what you pay for."

The higher cost of living there has its advantages, says Kolweier.

"If you have a house in Nashville and the same identical home in Coulterville which would bring the most money?" he said. "Building a new house is going to cost the same anywhere but 10 years down the road where is it going to be?"

When one talks to Nashville residents, the sense of community pride is the first thing noticed. Townsfolk like to point out how clean the community looks, its parks, golf course and fine schools.

"Nashville ranked number one in the Prairie State Achievement tests. That says an awful lot about our school system," Zapp said. "Parents are very active with the schools. It shows."

Community togetherness is also demonstrated in other ways. The single-screen State Theater is still open because of town support. In the 1970s it was on the verge of closing when local citizens formed a corporation - the Nashville Theater Group - to raise money to keep it open. Stockholders bought 346 shares at $100 per share to financing the operation. In 1999, $25,000 was raised locally to again prop the theater up and to purchase new seats.

Harold Lurch appreciates the town's community spirit so much he chose Washington County as his home after retiring as a professor of mathematics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Lurch recalls what sold him on Nashville.

"I was driving through and I had dizzy spell," he said in Dennis Frieman's barber shop. "He (Frieman) stopped and took me to the hospital. That's what makes this town work - it's people."

Frieman's partner, Charlie Dietering chimed in, "Do you know the difference between a small and big town? When someone asks how you are doing in a small town they listen to your answer."

All seems well for Nashville. Mayor Kolweier said the city is financially fit. It received $900,000 in sales taxes last year and opened a new city hall in December paying cash for its more than $700,000 construction.

But as he looks out on his downtown and understands that commercial development will continue to occur on north Illinois 127 near the factories - a Fred's Discount Store is set to open, Alco variety store is already there and commercial land is for sale - he wonders what Nashville will look like in the future.

"The downtown has been good up to this point but we have to ask, 'how long is it going to stay that way?'" he said. "But as other retailers want to move in it is hard to keep them out. Competition is good but there are only so many ways to cut the pie."

For the time being, however, Nashville residents enjoy a quality of life that suits them fine and no one wants it to change.

"We've are an island. There is a connection here," Small said. "We don't have to put up with the hassle of the city, yet we are less than an hour from St. Louis and Carbondale. We have a great place to live and not far to get anywhere else."

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