All-American City

Belleville, Illinois

“We are the largest city in southern Illinois, but we have a small town charm and appeal,” says Mayor Mark W. Eckert. The independent florist shop that he and his family have run for 15 years is a perfect example. “Every customer that comes in, whether they are there for a death or a wedding, my wife takes it very personally. She always pours her heart and soul into arrangements. That is the way businesses around here do things.”

The city of nearly 45,000, which is located just 20 minutes from St. Louis, boasts key urban amenities in addition to its small town friendliness. This rare combination is attracting an increasing number of young people, and encouraging longtime residents to stay put. “My husband and I have raised the fifth generation of our families here,” says Marketing Manager Sharon Strausbaugh. “We think Belleville is an ideal community because it is small enough to provide that hometown feeling of belonging, yet it is progressive enough to provide the amenities and services of a larger metropolitan community.”

Belleville offers opportunities for quality education from preschool through graduate school, with six school districts boasting award winning schools, a two year community college, and a four year university. Top notch healthcare is also available, and the city has two major hospitals, Memorial and St. Elizabeth. MetroLink light rail transportation system runs from Scott Air Force Base, which is located five minutes east of town, to Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, with three conveniently located stations for boarding in Belleville.

The city’s rich history and culture is evident in its 178 year old Carnegie Public Library, the first circulating library in the state of Illinois and one of the oldest in the United States. The Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra also has a long history; it has been in continuous operation for 147 years. Residents can also enjoy an historic downtown movie theatre, a variety of annual parades and 5K Run/Walks, car shows, an Old Town Market featuring fresh produce and handicrafts, one of the country’s last remaining drive-in theatres, pristine golf courses, pick-your-own orchards, and an enormous laser tag arena. St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Illinois, is also located in Belleville, as is the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, one of the largest outdoor shrines in America.

Twenty two city parks encompassing nearly 250 acres provide plenty of green spaces, and include an outdoor skateboard park and six miles of bicycle trails. “[We have the] parks and bike trails and amenities that young families are looking for,” Mayor Eckert points out. “And we are working with the county and neighboring communities to link a long stretch of this [trail system] together, all the way out to Scott Air Force Base and to the west end of Belleville.”

Belleville is famous for having the longest continuous main street in the United States. Furthermore, a portion of the 9.3 mile stretch of city maintained roadway has just been upgraded as part of a $7.1 million downtown Main Street renovation. The entire downtown area is enjoying a substantial revival. “Our downtown business district was at one time the heart and soul of southern Illinois,” Mayor Eckert remembers. Then, as with so many other towns, malls and shopping centers came along and the downtown slowly faded. “But now we are seeing it come back with specialty shops, new restaurants, and outdoor dining and night spots.” Belleville’s downtown also hosts annual Halloween, Oktoberfest, Veterans Day, and Gingerbread events as well as the annual Chili Cook-off and the Santa Claus Parade, which is the largest Christmas Parade in southern Illinois. Art on the Square, held in Belleville’s spacious Public Square, has been ranked the number one art show in the United States four times within the last seven years.

The city is actively working to generate even more business growth in the downtown. Already, the revitalization has proven quite successful and is beginning to draw millennials to the community. “I think we are really starting to [get] young people who want to live in a metropolitan area to look outside of Saint Louis and look at Belleville,” says Emily Fultz, Director of Economic Development. “We have a lot to offer at very competitive prices.”

There is an abundance of housing for newcomers, both young and old. “There really are housing options for everyone,” Ms. Fultz says. “We have so many different neighborhoods and so many different styles of homes. We have apartments for those starting out, we have wonderful historic homes, and we have downtown lofts. We have such a wide variety and so much to offer,” including three local and two National Register historic districts.

A special partnership with Scott Air Force Base also sets Belleville apart. With 13,000 employees, the military base is the area’s largest employer and has been a part of the community for nearly a century. The close relationship began in 1917, when city leaders helped the military acquire the land they needed. “We have one of the oldest continuous military civilian partnerships in the nation, the Belle-Scott committee,” Mayor Eckert shares. “That is very significant.” Belleville values the relationship and welcomes military personnel and their families. “A lot of military people choose to retire here. They fit into our churches and our schools and our little leagues. And that has been another major part of why this community has stayed strong; we continue to be diverse and are growing in the right direction.”

Other Belleville residents include several well-known individuals; champion golfer Bob Goalby, actor Buddy Ebsen, and astronaut Sandra Magnus were all born in Belleville. The city was also the birthplace of Jelly Belly. The gourmet jelly bean traces its roots back to a humble candy store opened in Belleville in 1869 by German immigrant Gustav Goelitz.

Now, Belleville is excited to celebrate its history and residents during the city’s 200th anniversary this year. “We are proud of what we have,” Mayor Eckert remarks. “We have come a long way and we are having a fun year celebrating the 200th.” The festivities will culminate in a big bash this September, when the city combines its popular Oktoberfest celebration with an elaborate Anniversary celebration. “There will be great music, including the Beach Boys in concert, great food, and lots of fun for all ages,” Mayor Eckert says. The community will even be attempting to break a World Record by grilling a 200 foot long Bratwurst, which will be served at the event.

With so much to offer, it isn’t surprising that Belleville was named an All-America City by the National Civic League in 2011. The community’s progressive government, quality education, outstanding healthcare, community participation and spirit of volunteerism were all cited as reasons why Belleville earned this recognition. “We have some of the greatest volunteers in the world,” Mayor Eckert explains. “I think it is that [spirit of] service and volunteerism that the people have here that sets Belleville apart.”

The people of Belleville are eager to support their city and continue to take an active role in making the community a better place. As a result, city leaders are listening to what residents have to say and are using their opinions and suggestions to help develop an updated Comprehensive Plan for the city that will encourage business and economic growth in Belleville. “We are wrapping up a yearlong study to get input from people throughout all the neighborhoods about where they want to see Belleville in the next 10 to 20 years,” Mayor Eckert reports. “It is exciting to get people’s input and to hear their visions for this community.”

It is no surprise that this close knit community is coming together to keep Belleville strong. After all, this is a city where people still stop to wave, and the local postal worker is likely to call you by name. A lot may have changed in the 200 years since Belleville was founded, but the community’s small town charm has certainly stayed the same.

July 20, 2018, 2:55 AM EDT

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