November 28, 2007

Meetings set on Cairo revitalization efforts

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — There's something in the air in the Ohio River community of Cairo these days. It's hope, it's the winds of change, it's the seeds of revitalization.

And it's thanks to a project involving students and faculty from Southern Illinois University Carbondale along with community volunteers and others. It began in the summer when the SIUC "Preservation Summer" classes kicked off the urban design and community revitalization. The Cairo Rotary Club and Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone (SIDEZ) jumped aboard.

This fall, students from the SIUC Urban Design and Community class have worked with community members, who organized under the name of Cairo 20/20 Committee. Thanks to the hard work of all involved in those groups and a number of others, big things are starting to happen, said Robert H. Swenson, associate professor and architect from the SIUC School of Architecture.

A series of meetings and activities will showcase the latest developments in the ongoing project. An open house is set for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Cairo Studio Office, 709 Washington St.. SIUC students will make their final on-campus presentations from 2 to 4 p.m. Dec. 6 in Quigley Hall, Room 219 on the SIUC campus. The wrap-up will be the end of semester Cairo Urban Studio presentation at 6 p.m. Dec. 10 at the First Presbyterian Church, located at the corner of 18th and Washington streets in Cairo. Each is open to the public, Swenson said.

Project participants kicked into action when they learned the First Christian Church, down to just a handful of families, was disbanding. Members planned to auction the building, perhaps even selling its valuable stained glass windows separately. The 20/20 group sought a delay on the sale, looked for buyers, and eventually committee members got involved personally by bidding on the church, intent on preserving the piece of the community's past.

The windows themselves were valued at between $200,000 and $300,000, Swenson said. As bidding went on, the price for just the windows climbed. And proponents of keeping the historic structure intact began talking to another bidder with the same goal. Ultimately, church members also agreed it was best to keep it together and sold the building to Carbondale businessman Geoffrey King, Swenson said.

He said King subsequently began working with the Cairo Vision 20/20 and Urban Design class for the good of the community. Swenson said that included an offer by King to allow non-profit groups to use the church facility. King also plans to seek state grant funding and work with other interested parties in developing a pre-fabricated housing industry in empty warehouse space within the Cairo Tax Increment Financing district. It's a plan that would bring jobs to the community.

And that's just the beginning. Swenson said that Jon Davey, SIUC architecture professor, may work with the Delta Center-Street Outreach Program next summer teaching Cairo youth about architecture and history. The young people then can help with continuing property/inventory survey work started this fall by the committee and SIUC students. Hopes are that participants in the summer camps could get field experience and earn summer income as part of the Delta Center summer job program, Swenson said.

Bridges have been built and relationships formed between SIUC students and Cairo youth. The University students have made numerous trips to Cairo, continuing their research and planning efforts. They've met with Kevin Schraer, coordinator of the Street Outreach Program for the Delta Center in Cairo and a group of junior and senior high students from Schraer's program visited the SIUC School of Architecture recently for presentations, pizza and discussions.

"This turned out to be an extremely rewarding experience for both groups," Swenson said, adding that they plan to continue the relationship.

In addition, SIUC students met with James Wilson, Alexander Housing Authority director, to discuss long-range goals for Cairo public housing. They've also continued working in two-person teams to create revitalization plans for six focus areas: the Washington and Sycamore avenues corridor, the waterfront/river walk/marina area, a midtown educational district, the core downtown area, new and rehabilitated housing to replace the McBride Public Housing apartments, and design and building programs pertinent to Cairo youth. During the upcoming meetings, students will present their plans for these areas.

Meanwhile, several Vision 20/20 committee members are continuing the property survey, focusing on the significant properties within the historic district. Swenson said the goal is finishing as soon as possible and displaying the data by sometime next spring on a Web site to be developed.

Another project participant, Rachel Malcolm Ensor, former SIUC professor, is proposing an interactive digital humanities project involving the social and architectural history of Cairo. She's offered to conduct a historical research project involving local residents so they could learn more of the historic resources that still remain in Cairo.

Swenson said the groups have also identified "several vacant properties and several quality vernacular 'shotgun' houses have been identified from the recent tax sale that might be appropriate for a rehabilitation/restoration workshop to be conducted by the Heritage Conservation Network and the SIUC School of Architecture similar to last summer's Kornthal Church project in Union County."

Swenson said the city has asked the county to postpone sale of the properties to allow the preservationists to work on plans to relocate some of the structures to vacant sites near the Custom House in order to enhance the tourism appeal of the area. He said he's hopeful some of the youth participating in the Kid Architecture/Delta Center summer camps could help with the project while earning a bit of summer income.

Although the fall Urban Design and Community class is wrapping up, the project is ongoing, Swenson said. Volunteers remain committed and during the spring semester, a small group of independent studies students from SIUC along with faculty will continue discussions and development of potential future projects like those involving Davey, King, Malcolm Ensor and the structural relocations, he said.