Lessoff: The next Bloomington-Normal needs the old State Farm building

Lessoff: The next Bloomington-Normal needs the old State Farm building

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State Farm’s plan to demolish its downtown headquarters should concern everyone. Renovated only 15 years ago for an estimated $12 million —  subsidized by $2.5 million in federal historic tax credits — the landmark structure, vacant since 2018, appears to have become a burden that State Farm is eager to unload. This is another signal that the country’s largest property and casualty insurer no longer feels as strong a bond to our city as it once had. State Farm might maintain steady overall employment in the area for years, yet powerful trends in finance and communications are pulling functions — and thus the company’s civic imagination — elsewhere.

Many, including The Pantagraph’s editorial writers, greeted the news with resigned nostalgia, a short-sighted response. The old headquarters might no longer be functional from the perspective of the company, but it is indispensable to Bloomington-Normal’s efforts to move beyond dependence on State Farm. All over the country, mid-sized cities go to great lengths to preserve buildings such as the old headquarters and make them the center of revitalization programs that coordinate new construction with a downtown’s historic fabric.

Local leaders in smaller cities in every region almost across the board treat downtown revitalization based on historic buildings as essential to attracting new business, especially in information technology, specialized services, media, and design. In the Midwest, with partial exception of state capitals, nearly every dynamic mid-sized city features a diverse, highly educated employment base, usually linked to a local university, along with a dynamic downtown that appeals to recent college graduates. This is not a mere lifestyle preference among the arts-minded young. Contrary to the expectation that the internet might make location irrelevant, digital-age innovation depends on clusters of individuals and firms interacting in close proximity. San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston epitomize this phenomenon. Anyone who has spent time in Chicago lately has noticed long-underused downtown buildings filling up, while the Tribune reports worrisome vacancies in suburban office parks. The reliable employment once provided by institutions like State Farm underwrote the dispersed, suburban way of life. Predictable jobs made possible long-term loans for the cars and homes that the company insured. By contrast, young college graduates face continuous, unpredictable innovation. For centuries, such situations have drawn people toward cities, with their dense professional and cultural networks and their fluid opportunities.

The collapse of the textile industry after the 1970s left Greenville, South Carolina, with a multitude of underused commercial and industrial buildings. Despite being in the middle of a famously low-tax, small-government region, Greenville aggressively pursued public-private partnerships to fill downtown with new businesses, services, and cultural activities. Greenville took advantage of the movement into upland South Carolina of highly mechanized foreign manufacturers such as Michelin and BMW. Greenville promoted its easy access to Charlotte and Atlanta, along with its proximity to a higher education network that encompassed Clemson, Furman, and Bob Jones University.

Bloomington-Normal has what urban planners call “good bones”: solid, attractive downtown structures such as the old People’s Bank and Pantagraph buildings, as well as State Farm. Downtown offers inexpensive, flexible space for start-ups, ready access to St. Louis and Indianapolis as well as Chicago. The movement into the area of firms like Rivian and Brandt present an opportunity similar to the one that Greenville imaginatively used.

The much-debated plans that Chicago’s Farr Associates prepared over the last 20 years for uptown Normal and downtown Bloomington have at their heart a vision of a vibrant regional metropolis where creative young people can find possibilities in two engaging central districts. ISU’s recent deal with the town of Normal to locate its new business incubator in the pending Trail East building adhered to this reasoning. When announcing the deal, university President Larry Dietz stressed that the incubator ought to assist in encouraging students to keep their start-ups in the area once they graduate.

Other cities provide numerous examples of financial and ownership arrangements that saved buildings much more complicated than State Farm; in worse shape; and in cities much more cash-strapped than ours. A vigorous local effort to work with the company to transfer and reuse the old headquarters will signal that we have a place where innovative people are welcome. Letting the building become another empty lot while we indulge in nostalgia sends the message that we don’t understand and don’t care to learn.

Lessoff, an Illinois State University history professor, has written books and articles on planning and development in cities as varied as Washington, D.C., and Corpus Christi, Texas. He is currently working with the McLean County Museum of History on an exhibit and book based on Bloomington-Normal’s numerous failed building projects and unimplemented plans.


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