Celebrating two decades with Jacksonville Main Street
By Kyla Hurt
Twenty years on eighteenth of June. “Honestly, it went by pretty fast,” expresses Jacksonville Main Street (JMS) Executive Director Judy Tighe.
“Yeah, I mean, 20 years ago, you think back, and everything was so different and so much has happened between then and now. At the same time, it doesn’t seem like it’s been 20 years. There’s no way it’s been 20 years.”
Tighe had an interior design business and was a freelance writer for an online interactive newsletter called Street Mail. Both allowed her to work at home so she could have her kids around, she says.
Tighe recalls, “I just kinda decided I wanted to do something a little bit more. First of all, I wanted to get of the basement (Tighe smiles). But I wanted to work outside of home … I don’t know, I wanted to have a bigger purpose, I guess … do something that was a little more meaningful … and I happened to see an ad in the paper. The position then was called a program manager [for Jacksonville Main Street] and I read down the list and thought, I could probably do that.”
It turns out she could. As an independent nonprofit, JMS is required to have a full-time program manager – now called executive director – in order to be accredited.
Judy Tighe started June 18, 2001, with Jacksonville Main Street. “One of the very first things that our design committee and the board at that time had already put into play … the first step of what we could do locally to undo that horrible situation that what was going on on the square,” says Tighe. That was canopy removal, Tighe’s first project with JMS.
She admits that when she started, she really had no idea the position entailed. On her first day, she walked into a one-room space, probably 12-by-12. She had one of the old school desktop PCs that took up half of the desktop space – “it was like a person sitting on my desk,” she laughs. The office was located on the lower level of the Farmers State Bank and Trust Company. “Yeah, it was their basement, but it was way nicer than my basement,” joked Tighe. After that, she was in what is now the Hamilton’s building and then moved to 201 W. Morgan for nine years.
The current home of Jacksonville Main Street is 222 West State St., having moved to it over the Fourth of July week in 2012. It is a larger space with ample storage.
It was just Tighe and hundreds of volunteers until the position of event coordinator was created; in late 2014, Kristen Jenkins came on board as part-time event coordinator and in late 2018, Melissa Zoerner took on the role.
That opened up Tighe’s schedule to work on other things to benefit downtown. For example, the National Register Historic District. Opening this meant property owners can take advantage of federal tax credits if they meet certain criteria. This was never an option before.
Tighe reminisces about some of her bigger and favorite projects, noting the Walldog Extravaganza in 2006, when Walldog artists from all over came to Jacksonville and painted large murals depicting local historical events. She also notes what was called the “Pink Palace,” saying that JMS was basically “gifted” a house and from ’06 to ’08, “we took it on as kind of an example as how to do a tax credit project.” The house was in dire straits and unwanted. They gutted it and transformed it, winning a Richard Driehaus Award for that project, which is the highest preservation award in the state.
Some other positives include adding 16 cameras and Wi-Fi downtown after 2015. Tighe adds, “It was especially beneficial during COVID. We saw an uptick in use of over 300% in the first months during COVID.” Also advantageous was administering the city’s façade improvement grant program. It came with the caveat that you had to do more than just patch that little hole on the overhangs; with that program came about $750,000 worth of improvements, says Tighe.
“One of the biggest accomplishments, I think, over the years is the reduction in vacancy rates. When Main Street started, it was about 27% vacancy and since 2012, it’s maintained somewhere around 5 to 6%. So, that’s some pretty good reduction,” expresses Tighe.
She adds, “We won the Great American Main Street Award in 2012. That was cool. It’s the highest award for any main street organization in the country. We are one of only two communities in the active Illinois Main Street communities who have ever won that award.”
However, it did not start out great. Tighe recalls, “When I first started, I remember going over and meeting with the State Historic Preservation Agency. At that time, because of the condition of the square, vacancies, and a whole lot of other things, we were the example of, ‘don’t do this.’ They said [that] … I have actually been to conferences when they would say, ‘At least you’re not Jacksonville.’ So, over the course of about 10-12 years, I guess, we shifted to being held up as a shining example of what TO do.”
“Right about 10 years ago in May was the first Downtown Celebration and I was so happy to see all these people downtown having fun, enjoying their community, I literally cried all day. Trina Meek kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Puppies. Bunnies and kitties.’ Just happy thoughts. But I just burst into tears every time someone came up to me. It made me so happy.”
“All of it has really been pretty fun, honestly,” admits Tighe.
In 2006, Tighe was awarded The Lieutenant Governor’s Executive Director of the Year Award from Illinois Main Street. She is a Certified Main Street Manager (CMSM) and maintains the accreditation through continuing education. Congratulations and thank you for the accomplishments, improvements and entertainment in downtown Jacksonville for which you’ve been a leader. You made a good decision to get out of your basement, sincerely.