When Washington residents find themselves going in circles, it’s not because they are lost or confused. In fact, they couldn’t be happier: They’ve been circling the Downtown Square for nearly 200 years.
With its mix of century-old buildings, nostalgia and modern amenities, the Downtown Square is at the heart of what makes this bustling Tazewell County town tick: people, progress and history.
Washington’s longtime mayor, Gary Manier, calls the Square “the city’s historical gem.” Part of the original village laid out by William Holland in 1838, the Square evokes a bygone era, even as storefront retailers sell online and big box stores rule on the west end of town.
In 1967 — in the name of progress — the state wanted to straighten out Route 24 through the center of Washington instead of slowing motorists for the jog around the Square. Businesses and the Town and Country Gardeners fought the change and the plan was scrapped.
Then as now, preserving the past is considered progress in Washington.
2O YEARS AND GROWING
While “old town” Washington might be a source of preservationist pride, Manier said it is just one feature of his hometown that has drawn people to Washington during his tenure as mayor.
Amenities like the Five Points Washington community center, 14 miles of biking/walking trails, lots of parks and recreation opportunities, and top-notch schools have all contributed to tremendous growth over the past 20 years.
From 2000 to today, Washington’s population grew from 10,600 to 16,259. In 2005-2006 alone, 309 new single-family homes were built. Growth has been more modest in recent years, but still trends upward.
“People aren’t moving away, they are staying here,” Manier said. “We are blessed to have enough amenities to keep them here.”
FIVE POINTS AND MORE
One of the chief attractions is Five Points Washington, “the crown jewel of the community.” Opened in 2007, the 148,000-square-foot facility houses an aquatics center, fitness center, banquet facility, 1,000-seat performing arts center and the public library all under one roof.
People don’t just love Five Points, “people move here because of it,” said Vikki Poorman, the general manager.
Functioning as a sort of small-town civic center, Five Points is operated as a nonprofit corporation, with revenue primarily from memberships, rentals, ticket sales and activity fees. It is controlled by a board with representation from government, schools, the park district, the library and the community at-large.
On any given day, Five Points might host swim lessons, a dance recital, a high school PE class, a performance of the Heartland Festival Orchestra, library researchers, a concert or play, a wedding reception and a City Council meeting.
Membership slipped during the pandemic but is slowly trending upward again. Poorman said about 70% of members are Washington residents, with the balance from surrounding communities.
“We are extremely proud to have a facility like this in a town this size,” said Poorman. “It is well supported by the community.”
Another point of pride in Washington is the K-12 school system, split between four public districts and St. Patrick Catholic School.
“One of the most important things that sets Washington schools apart is that the faculty members … care about the students, and they want the best for them,” said Dr. Kyle Freeman, superintendent of Washington Community High School, while boasting of the “phenomenal” opportunities for students in academics, athletics, clubs, music, the arts and more.
“Our goal is to prepare students for the next level, whatever that is for each individual,” he said. Some 80% of WCHS students move on to college, 10% enter the workforce, and 7% join the military.
Community support is “tremendous,” as evidenced by the orange and black Washington Panthers flags and banners adorning homes and businesses on any given Friday during the school year.
SMALL BUSINESS AND A BIG TORNADO
City officials don’t contest Washington’s reputation as a bedroom community, but they do point to the 400 people employed by Washington’s school districts, the Walmart Supercenter (300 plus full- and part-time employees) and Uftring Chevrolet (100 plus employees) as significant local job creators.
On the manufacturing side are Illinois Valley Plastics, which recently expanded and employs around 100; BTD, a metal fabricator employing about 70: and Allied Wheel Services, which makes wheels for rail cars and has more than 60 workers. M4 Steel opened shop in 2019, fabricating boilers and related equipment on Cummins Lane. A handful of other companies offer jobs in the electrical, printing and equipment industries.
Meanwhile, small businesses of all sorts thrive in and around Washington. Russell’s Cycling and Fitness is one of them. Joe Russell started the business 46 years ago “with two bikes and a handful of parts,” and has grown to serve cycling and fitness enthusiasts in a 50-mile area.
Early on, Russell said manufacturers courted him to move his shop to Peoria. But he was raising kids at the time and wanted to be near their schools and other activities. He stayed put and has never regretted the decision.
“The people here in Washington are honest and they really appreciate a quality product,” said Russell.
He also applauded Washington’s strong sense of community. “This is a faith-based community. The people here have a desire to think of others first and help out.”
Never was that community spirit more important than in the aftermath of the EF-4 tornado that swept through town on Nov. 17, 2013. Winds of up to 190 mph destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, left three dead and more than 100 injured, and caused tens of millions in property damage. But the citizens of Washington and surrounding communities pulled together, cleaned up and moved forward.
“The best thing that happened was a lot of people came to our rescue. The residents came together and were so resilient,” Manier remembers.
Ten years later, nearly all of the homes have been rebuilt and life has returned to normal. While there will likely be a 10-year remembrance next year, Manier said most Washingtonians are looking to the future.
“Our residents deserve all the credit for rebuilding,” Manier added. “I think it was the kind of community we were before the disaster hit that helped us come out of it.”
A GROWING DESTINATION
Out on the east edge of town is another example of perseverance — Bob and Lisa Barry’s Tres Rojas Winery. After three failed attempts to land a permanent home for their fledgling winemaking operation, they were ready to call it quits.
But the City of Washington got wind of their plight and offered a parcel of property on Cruger Road in 2019.
Turns out it has “excellent soil and topography for grapes,” Bob Barry said. Tres Rojas now has a tasting room, vineyard and modern winemaking operation. It is attracting patrons from “outside the zip code,” generating sales and property tax and offering a unique venue for live music, wedding showers and other private gatherings.
The Barrys have even moved from Morton to Washington to be closer to their burgeoning business.
“The city has been fabulous to work with,” Bob Barry said.
At the same time, the city continues to work with Tangled Roots Brewing Company in Ottawa to bring a new brew pub to the Square, complete with a restaurant, event space, rooftop bar and beer garden. Originally slated to open in 2022, the mayor said the eatery is now expected to open on the east side of the Square in fall 2023. The Grist Mill, as the establishment will be called, will be the first craft brewery in Tazewell Country.
That’s good news for Kris Hasten and other specialty shop owners on the Square. “We’ll be much stronger when we get a restaurant back on the Square,” she said, adding that a signature dining experience will round out what is already a popular destination.
Hasten owns Sentimental Journey (on the square since 1982) and is part of an informal merchant’s group that sponsors Rove and Ramble events in the summer, plus carriage rides, live music, food trucks and other activities at the annual Fall Festival and a wintertime Candlelight Stroll.
Together with the Cornerstone Inn in the old Denhart Bank building, Airbnb accommodations adjacent to the new brew pub and elsewhere on the Square, the merchants are creating a destination for locals and out-of-town visitors seeking what Hasten calls a “Hallmark card feeling.”
200 YEARS AND COUNTING
Two colorful murals on the Square remind residents and visitors of Washington’s deep roots. One depicts the town’s first resident, William Holland; the other remembers the series of bandstands that once stood on the Square. Plaques celebrate Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, who both passed through Washington on their way to greatness.
History is clearly important in Washington — a bicentennial celebration is planned for 2025 — but history here is not so much about dates and places as it is about the people who have made and continue to make the town special.