Watseka, Manteno: All Dressed Up and Ready to Go

By Laura Hill on March 2, 2012 at 2:26 pm EST
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Many American small towns tell a sad tale of deserted Main Streets and dwindling amenities. But Watseka and Manteno are turning that story upside down, becoming two of Kankakee County’s most popular destinations.

Watseka Theatre a Star

In Watseka, both residents and visitors are flocking to a rehabbed downtown block, where they can enjoy a meal, see a concert and shop, courtesy of one couple’s vision.

Chuck Gomez, a professional musician and concert/special events producer in Chicago, nurtured a longtime dream to rehab his hometown Watseka theater, which had closed in 1998. An attempt 25 years ago to buy the building fell through, but in May 2007 he and life partner Debra Liddell succeeded. Designed by famed architect Louis Skidmore, the Art Deco movie house needed work.

“It was in trouble,” Gomez recalls. “The basement had six feet of water standing in it for 10 years, broken windows, floors rotted, seats fallen through, falling plaster – a true mess.”

Undaunted, the couple took on the rehab, and opened the following New Year’s Eve. The 300-seat Watseka Theatre has since bloomed, offering enthusiastic area audiences everything from major country music and rock acts to internationally recognized comedy shows to vaudeville and the annual Watseka Blues, BBQ and Arts Festival. A storefront, part of the building’s façade, became the Club Café serving pizza and pasta weekday evenings and gourmet dinners with accompanying live music on Friday nights. An adjacent former town hall became an ice cream parlor, and Liddell’s artful accessories are offered at nearby Artful Endeavors.

Manteno Manicures Main Street

In Manteno, several major projects are changing the face of the village.

The first two phases of 67-acre Legacy Park, a major recreation area, were completed in 2011, giving the town 11 more soccer fields, two football fields, a splash pad, baseball practice field, 200-250-seat amphitheater, tennis courts, a playground and walking paths.

“Manteno has grown to 9,000 people in the past 10 years, and we really needed this,” says village administrator and police chief Bernie Thompson.

The park, a joint project of the village and the township of Manteno, was largely funded by $800,000 in state grants.

In spring 2012 construction will begin on a public plaza and enhanced pedestrian walkway at Main and 1st Street that will connect to a new bus transfer station across the railroad tracks on Oak Street. A joint project of River Valley Metro and the village of Manteno, the $530,000 improvement will feature a 45-foot flagpole, benches and extensive landscaping.

Another, proposed, destination plaza on Main Street at 2nd Street could begin construction as early as 2014, Thompson says. It would contain restaurants – a new Pizza Stone restaurant has opened there already – and such seasonal events as ice skating, crafts fairs, sand volleyball and other community gatherings.

“We’ve done a lot here too with streetscape along Main Street,” says Thompson. “Manteno is a very nice town, and very attractive.”

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