Rising from the Ashes: Revitalizing Mendota, One Step at a Time

By Darcy Maulsby

Mendota, Illinois Gateway Sign

You can tell a lot about a community not only from their successes, but how they deal with setbacks. The residents of Mendota, Illinois, were well on their way towards revitalizing their downtown—until the unthinkable happened.

In late August 2022, a massive fire broke out along Main Street. Roughly 15 fire departments from the area responded, but the blaze destroyed multiple structures downtown, including an apartment building.

Mendota, Illinois, Downtown. Photo credit: Reimagine Mendota
Mendota, Illinois, Downtown. Photo credit: Reimagine Mendota.

Just four months later, a second major fire ripped through downtown Mendota in late December 2022, engulfing storefronts along Illinois Avenue. The inferno left a gaping wound where stores, second-floor apartments and a pet shop had once stood.

“One fire was shocking, but two fires were awful,” said Annie Short, an active member of Reimagine Mendota, which formed in 2018 to help revitalize downtown Illinois Avenue. “It was heartbreaking to have all this hard work wiped out so quickly.”

Mendota, Illinois fire damage aftermath. Photo credit: Darcy Maulsby.

Along with the staggering financial losses, the fires took a steep emotional toll. “They were devastating to the community,” said Amy Brewer, a retired elementary school teacher and long-time Mendota resident.

The fires couldn’t consume Mendota’s indomitable spirit, however. In some ways, Mendota’s burned-out buildings have become powerful symbols of the town’s future, which depends on people working together. “A lot of those downtown buildings affected by the fires are interconnected,” Short said. “The fate of one is intertwined with the fate of the others.”

The fires have also sparked something even more powerful. “The fires added a sense of urgency that helped draw people together,” Brewer said.

This urgency has translated into action, especially after Reimagine Mendota applied for and received a Community Heart & Soul Seed Grant® in the spring of 2023. Local residents have been working through Community Heart & Soul’s proven, four-step process that helps small towns identify what they love most about their community, what future they want for it, and how to achieve it.

Mendota Illinois, Community Heart & Soul, Reimagine Mendota Heart & Soul team logo

“It’s great to have more resources and get more people involved,” said Steve Lauer, president of Reimagine Mendota. Today, the group works with Community Heart & Soul to help create a new path forward.

“This process is helping us define who we are,” Brewer said. “It’s fun to focus on the positive and dream about how we can help our community thrive.”

Digging Deeper Helps Mendota Go to the Next Level

Located in farm country in northern Illinois, Mendota bills itself as “The World’s Greatest Little City.” From its beginnings in 1853, the town grew as multiple rail lines connected the town with the wider world. With a population of roughly 7,000 residents today, Mendota remains an Amtrak stop between Quincy, Illinois, and Chicago, about 90 miles to the northeast.

Various manufacturing companies helped Mendota grow through the years. Del Monte Foods operated a processing plant in Mendota for 70 years. Approximately 550 employees packaged peas, sweet corn, mixed vegetables, lima beans and more during the peak season.

For decades, Mendota has hosted the annual Sweet Corn Festival, which celebrated its 76th anniversary in August 2023. The event attracts 60,000+ visitors, who consume more than 50 tons of sweet corn during the festival weekend.

The Sweet Corn Festival is just one of many fond memories for Short, who grew up in Mendota. “I had excellent teachers, and Mendota has great schools. I learned to swim in the Mendota public swimming pool and enjoyed going to Lake Mendota, which still brings people together and is a huge asset for the community.”

Changing times brought big challenges to Mendota, however, in recent years. Manufacturing declined. Del Monte announced plans in 2019 to close its Mendota facility. Various downtown businesses closed. Storefronts remained vacant. Then came the fires of 2022.

“The typical reaction is to hurry up and fix the problem,” said Short, who moved back to Mendota in early 2023 after living and working in Wisconsin for years. “It’s much better to slow down and ask key questions first to figure out what people value here.”

Short was excited when Mendota started working with Community Heart & Soul, which helps residents shape their town’s future. “This opportunity is for communities like Mendota that want to go to the next level but don’t know how,” said Jason Neises, a Community Heart & Soul Coach who works closely with Mendota. “You don’t start with the negative, like what needs to be fixed or how to save the town. Instead, we ask, ‘What do you love about this town, and how can we make it better?’”

Reimagine Mendota, Heart & Soul Team, Mendota Illinois. Photo credit: Reimagine Mendota.
Reimagine Mendota, Heart & Soul Team, Mendota Illinois. Photo credit: Reimagine Mendota.

In June 2023, about 35 people gathered in Mendota for the first phase of the Community Heart & Soul process. Participants discussed:

  • What brought you to Mendota?
  • What do you remember about Mendota in years past?
  • What do you love about Mendota?
  • How can we get more young people involved in the community?
  • How can we promote more volunteerism?
  • What would you like Mendota to be going forward?
  • What excites you about the future of Mendota?

“This was a great opportunity to bring people together and help community members get to know each other better,” said Brewer, who has lived in Mendota since 1973. “While typical meetings tend to focus on fixing what’s wrong, Community Heart & Soul starts by encouraging us to think about what’s great about our community.”

The questions are more strategic than, “What do you want to see in this community?” “People will often respond to a vague question like that by saying ‘more small businesses,’” Short said.

Community Heart & Soul’s process digs deeper. “When you ask if ‘small business’ means another vape shop, most people say no,” Brewer said. “If you ask for more specifics, they say the number one business they’d like is a coffee shop/bakery in Mendota.”

Discovering What Matters Most

Community Heart & Soul revolves around giving a voice to everyone in a community. Roughly 40% of Mendota’s population, for example, is Hispanic. “There are many fifth- and sixth-generation Hispanic residents here,” Short noted. “We want to get more Hispanic representation in city leadership roles. We need their voices to be heard.”

To gather input from a wide array of community members, volunteers have attended Cinco de Mayo events, YMCA Healthy Kids’ Day, the Sweet Corn Festival, local soccer games, Railroad Crossing Days, the local farmer’s market, Mendota High School summer band concert and more throughout the summer and fall of 2023.

The volunteers also helped clean out the fire-damaged buildings along Illinois Avenue and partnered with the Mendota Area Chamber of Commerce to host a Business After Hours event at the Elks Lodge. To solicit even more input from local residents, the volunteers distributed informational flyers to more than 4,000 Mendota households and held 20 data collection/listening events to reach as many people in the community as possible.

Mendota, Illinois residents with Community Heart & Soul Certified Coach, Jason Neises. Photo credit: Reimagine Mendota
Mendota, Illinois residents with Community Heart & Soul Certified Coach, Jason Neises. Photo credit: Reimagine Mendota.

“Community Heart & Soul is intentionally designed to get more people at the table and open people’s eyes to the community’s potential,” said Neises, who also serves as the community development coordinator at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.

After seven months of work, volunteers received more than 1,700 responses, nearly a quarter of the city’s population. They shared the results with the community during a Focus on Mendota Summit in November 2023. Mendota residents have expressed an interest in a variety of goals–the list will be refined as they hear from other groups–including:

  • Promoting how Mendota is a safe, supportive community.
  • Recruiting more industry, restaurants, and other businesses.
  • Building walking and bicycle paths.
  • Making downtown Mendota a destination with an amphitheater, outdoor seating, dining, specialty shops, and more events/activities.

“The trauma the community has experienced due to the fires also opened up new perspectives,” Neises said. “The people of Mendota are very responsive and highly motivated to improve the community. They’re interested in identifying emerging leaders and making sure they are connected to the resources they need.”

Renewing Hope, Remaining Resilient

One new resource for the community includes a Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Partnership for Success Grant (PFS). The City of Mendota will receive $375,000 each year for five years to fund schools, organizations, and staff to promote wellness, implement substance use prevention programming, and create more positive youth activities.

“During the Reimagine Mendota/Community Heart & Soul community chats, many people shared that the city needs to have more positive things for youth to do,” Short said. “This grant will support our organizations already doing great work and will allow the city to create even more opportunities for our youth.”

As Mendota residents move into phase three of the Community Heart & Soul program, they’re developing action plans to help create a more vibrant community far into the future. Along the way, they’ve embraced three success principles, including:

  1. Teamwork makes the dream work. Approximately 75 volunteers regularly participate in Community Heart & Soul events. “I hope we continue to attract more volunteers, new leadership, and more service projects that include kids, too,” Brewer said. “We want to show people that serving the community is a good feeling.” Having a Community Heart & Soul Coach like Neises is a huge asset, Short added. “Jason is awesome. He provides excellent training throughout this process. We can bounce ideas off him, and he’ll advise us on what has worked well in other communities. He also encourages us when things aren’t going so well and helps us stay motivated.”
  2. Share your story. More than 1,300 people follow Reimagine Mendota’s Facebook page, which posts updates about Community Heart & Soul efforts in Mendota. About once a month, the Mendota Reporter newspaper runs front-page stories about the progress of Community Heart & Soul and Reimagine Mendota. The community also receives updates via the local FM radio station, WGLC (“World’s Greatest Little City”). “We need to tell our stories more effectively to help more people understand how communities work, from local government to economic development,” Short said. “It’s also important to show people how they can be part of the solution. Every dollar you spend in Mendota is one more dollar that can be invested in downtown improvements, the public swimming pool and other things people want here.”
  3. Remain resilient. The people of Mendota know the two fires of 2022 are a setback, not an end. “Those burned-out buildings are not the whole of Mendota,” Short said. “There’s something very special about small towns. Our community has been so supportive as we focus on the future.” While it takes time to make progress, the effort is worth it, Short added. “Our goal is that Mendota will look much different in three to five years from now.”

Want to bring Community Heart & Soul to your town? Apply for a $10,000 Community Heart & Soul Seed Grant to get started. Learn more at: www.communityheartandsoul.org/seed-grants

Darcy Maulsby, Author, headshot
Darcy Maulsby, Author

If you enjoy true stories well told, you have a lot in common with Darcy (Dougherty) Maulsby. Known as Iowa’s Storyteller, this Iowa State University graduate is an ag journalist, speaker and the author of seven, non-fiction Iowa history books (including the Culinary History of Iowa; Iowa Agriculture: A History of Farming, Family and Food; Madison County; Classic Restaurants of Des Moines and Their Recipes; The Lincoln Highway in Iowa: A History, and more). Darcy is actively involved her family’s Century Farm near Lake City and owns her own marketing/communications company, Darcy Maulsby & Co. She’s been featured the Iowa State Fair episode of “Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations” on the Cooking Channel, and Smithsonian has dubbed her the “chili and cinnamon rolls” expert.