The Morris Downtown Development Partnership
Get To Know Honoree Julie Applegate!
Painted “animals on parade,” like cows and ducks, are a common sight in downtown areas during the summertime. Last summer, a pleasant surprise awaited in downtown Morris, a small city next to the historic Illinois & Michigan (I&M) Canal.
What caught my eye were whimsically crocheted yarn images: geometric designs, bright flowers, colorful pompoms, even a crocheted panel depicting hands holding beer mugs, all of which were wrapped around signposts, light-poles or tree trunks.
It was a hot weekday afternoon; yet the sidewalks were nicely peppered with people and many shops had doors wide open to welcome visitors along Liberty Street, their main street.
It is no coincidence, according to Ana B. Koval, President and CEO Canal Corridor Association, who said the Morris Downtown Development Partnership (MDDP) and its Executive Director, Julie Applegate, have a lot to do with that.
“It is a popular place to visit,” said Koval. “Morris has consistently done a good job of keeping their downtown the center of their community, and it has always been full and vibrant with a plethora of activities year round.”
“We have many advantages that bring tourism to our community,” Applegate said. “To be only an hour from Chicago and be able to experience the charm and all the amenities that a small town has to offer is a real benefit. Plus, the I&M Canal and its bike path are nearby and we’re close to other natural resources that can be combined with a trip here.”
“The MDDP committees and board of directors are highly involved volunteers and have always done what they could,” she added.
“We’re also proud of the connections we have,” Applegate said. “A lot of organizations work with us to beautify the area in general and it brings tourists downtown. So, by connecting and coordinating with them and doing our own projects, we’ve been able to do more than we otherwise could.”
The MDDP has enhanced and helped coordinate beautification through plantings, helping other organizations, and installing celebration lighting at several major intersections to guide travelers to their downtown, which is two blocks west of Route 47.
They have created a self-guided historic walking tour of the Morris Downtown Historic Commercial District; which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2006, and provided informational plaques that include brief historic descriptions of many historic buildings.
They have marketed downtown Morris through creating a searchable website with a color coded shopping guide and map and an overview of their many events and festivals that is being incorporated into the city website.
Among events the MDDP created and has hosted through the years are the Liberty Arts Festival, the Liberty 5K Run/Walk, and Home for the Holidays, a three day festival following Thanksgiving that ushers in the winter holiday season.
They have also helped promote downtown Morris events including the Three French Hens French Country Market, monthly summertime Cruise Nights commonly featuring six to seven hundred cars, the Grundy County Corn Festival, and more.
“People come back again and again because they like what they see,” Applegate said. “We have achieved success through planning together and working together.”
Retired at the end of 2021, Applegate said the MDDP was created in 1994. She became director in 2007 and enjoyed continuing to fulfill the Master Plan created in 1995.
“Looking to the future, in 2020, we adopted a new downtown plan including growth, basically to take a good downtown and make it better, and to maintain our historic charm and healthy community as our population increases,” Applegate said.
In January 2022, the City of Morris created a new Business Development Department and hired former MDDP board member Julie Wilkinson as its director. Going forward, this department will assume the MDDP’s responsibility of promoting, preserving and enhancing downtown Morris.
“Julie Applegate has led the charge,” Wilkinson said. “She has worked behind the scenes and always kept the retailers, the volunteers and the city first.”
In recognition of the community commitment to economic development through investing in and promoting their historic downtown, the Morris Downtown Development Partnership (MDDP) and executive director Julie Applegate, will be honored at the I&M Canal Corridor Association Canal Boat Captain’s Luncheon, on Friday, April 22.
By Nancy Uznanski