BELVIDERE — When the first Metra trains roll through Belvidere in about four years, passengers will get on and off at a station designed to keep them connected to the shops, stores and attractions in the city’s downtown.
The city’s future passenger platform is planned to be built just east of South State Street, roughly between City Hall and the Boone County Museum of History. It’s a location that connects the city’s future rail service to parts of its past, and it’s located about one block west of the historic depot that was razed more than five decades ago.
“It really makes the museum the centerpiece of the station,” said Michael Dunn Jr., the executive director of the Region 1 Planning Council, which is leading the planning for stations in Belvidere and Rockford. “It’s going to be really dynamic.”
Last week, Gov. JB Pritzker, Belvidere Mayor Clinton Morris and a host of other area dignitaries gathered in downtown Rockford to announce that the Illinois Department of Transportation has selected Metra as its passenger rail provider.
That announcement pushes forward work Belvidere has been planning for months. Public meetings held last October showcased the potential train stop as residents waited to hear whether Amtrak or Metra would be the provider.
The city had considered several options before landing on the site near State Street.
“The original plans called for a replica of the original depot going back to the early days almost in homage,” Dunn Jr. said. However, that would have required closures of Whitney Boulevard, which runs in front of City Hall.
There were also early plans to put the depot near the tollway as a park-and-ride station. Planners say that location could attract additional ridership from motorists who pass by on Interstate 90, but the downtown station is considered a better spot to promote economic development.
“It would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t put it as close as we could to downtown,” Morris said.
Morris and City Council members decided that downtown was a better location than a park and ride.
“There isn’t too many opportunities that the city gets, that we can do as a city, to help our downtown businesses, but one of them is to increase foot traffic,” Morris said. “To me that would have been a wasted opportunity if we didn’t help them by increasing foot traffic.”
The downtown location has ample parking, access to shopping and the potential to spur residential growth, according to Pamela Lopez-Fettes, executive director of Growth Dimensions, the economic development agency for Belvidere and Boone County.
“It will not only increase the workforce and employment opportunities, expanding the economy for businesses in the downtown as well as potentially bringing new businesses, but also I think we’ll see an influx of people living in condos or residential in the downtown area,” she said. “The evidence is seen in other communities and how their economy has grown around train stations.”
Rockford, meanwhile, is still considering plans for its downtown station. The initial plan called for a multistory parking deck between the railroad and the Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront Hotel, but that was scrapped when the rail project was put on hold by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2015. Now, Dunn Jr. said, sites under consideration are west of Main Street and before Winnebago Street along the tracks in downtown.
Back in Belvidere, the Boone County Museum of History has already started discussing ways to take advantage of a new neighboring train station.
“Being right next to it, we would be the first place people could come,” said Chris Gardner, curator at the Boone County Museum of History. “We’ve already been talking about historical tours that could be done, like day trips, for people who come from outside of our community.”
Gardner said she hopes the stop leads to more people learning about everything downtown Belvidere has to offer.
“Once people come inside the museum they’ll be amazed at how big it is and how nice the exhibits are,” Gardner said. “We’re proud of what we have here in this town, and we hope that people would come to learn about our history and then go visit the other really fascinating places.”