It looks like a civic arts plaza proposed for downtown Freeport will happen, and officials from the city and the Freeport Art Museum have high hopes for the project.
On a cold and blustery day, Freeport Art Museum executive director Jessica Modica shows off a bare grassy field on the north side of Freeport’s historic downtown. She says this will, one day, all be part of a cultural campus.
There’s already a start, with the public library, the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Square and the 100-year-old Union Dairy all across the street.
“The plaza site is wonderfully situated to extend that cultural campus,” Modica said, “and also, once it’s built, to provide that link from this north side to draw people down through the creative corridor along Chicago Avenue.”
Modica says plans for the plaza include a multi-purpose stage, a splash pad, literary pathways and an art walk with sculptures along it. Those facilities would allow for film, music, theater and other community events, as well as recreation.
She says the property was given to the museum decades ago, and the buildings on it were razed. The original idea was to relocate the Museum to the spot, but money wasn’t available. So the land sat. Then, she says, the question of what to do with the land became part of a larger conversation.
“It was a group of leaders and community folks of all different kinds of backgrounds that just started to get together for coffee in the morning before going to work,” Modica explained, “and we’re talking about ways that we could be part of this new narrative that the city was trying to implement.”
Modica says it was a progressive narrative, including changes in government and more support for civic cultural efforts. As the Museum considered how the arts could play a role, they noticed that a lot of people already were using the property, with or without permission.
“And we’re like, ‘OK, we have things going on here, and people need a space to hang out and to have festivals and to really enjoy being downtown,’” she said. “So how can we use the arts to support and facilitate that?”
The idea of a civic arts plaza was born. Modica says the plaza, library and dairy joining other sites along Chicago Avenue -- such as the Lindo Theater, a classic movie house, and Pretzel City Kitchens, a new community enterprise -- will make the corridor a distinctive destination.
Freeport City Manager Lowell Crow says that is very much in accord with that new narrative to which Modica referred – one that includes cultural activities as a way to make the old manufacturing town attractive to people in today’s world.
“My kids are both millennials,” Crow said, “and what they do is they decide where they’re going to live first, and then find a job after that. Part of that is developing a sense of community and sense of arts, along with embracing the concept of a maker community.”
Crow says the arts are a key component of that concept.
Mayor Jodi Miller says she’s excited at how the different parts of the corridor along Chicago Avenue – including the plaza – are lining up now, and what it says about the city.
“The focus for me is how do we bring greater economic development into downtown and they all fit,” Miller said. “Five years ago, I don’t know that all this would have been able to be pulled off together. But it just seems like one thing is snowballing to the next, and it’s just positive momentum for Freeport.”
Adam Schultz, president of the museum’s board, says having the city all in on the plaza is a great help. The partnership in money and in-kind services moved a detailed plan for the plaza forward. It also enabled the project to qualify for -- and ultimately receive -- a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts earlier this year.
Schultz says he and Modica feel that the endorsement of the plaza by the NEA helped bring in an anonymous donation of $250,000 this fall. That adds up to about a third of the estimated $1 million cost of the project raised already.
“We feel comfortable that we’ve been able to get there in a six-to-seven-month period,” Schultz said, “and we’ll be able to accomplish the next two-thirds over the next two years. So we plan on breaking ground in March/April 2018, and ideally we will finish and complete it summer/fall of 2020.”
Modica says she’s looking forward to the community response. Plans already are in the works for several festivals. But, looking out over the space, she says the plaza’s future is not solely up to the Museum.
“I think that it is important that the community decides what it wants to have in the space,” she said. “and it’s our role to help support that. And, no, so we don’t know what’s going to happen here, and that’s part of the beauty of it.”
And it’s a part of the city’s new narrative that’s yet to be written.