PROPHETSTOWN – There is snow and a few pine trees where eight buildings once stood in downtown Prophetstown. By May, a construction crew might be working there.
It’s been more than six months since a fire started behind Cindy Jean’s Restaurant on July 15 and spread to destroy a significant portion of the historic downtown. The rubble has been cleared, and the town and its displaced residents are moving on with their lives.
The rebuilding effort is expected to pick up steam in late April or early May, when it’s possible that a developer will “break dirt” on a new building, said Larry DeNeve, chairman of the town’s Economic Development Committee.
That developer is about “99 percent” committed, DeNeve said, adding that two others have expressed a strong interest.
Rebuilding could begin less than a year after the fire because the town quickly formed a redevelopment plan, organized the cleanup and took ownership of five of the eight lots. Mayor Steve Swanson said the town hopes to acquire two more lots soon.
“The following day [after the fire], a bunch of us got together and had a meeting – people from Main Street and some of the property owners that were affected,” Swanson said. “I kind of gave them my plan, what I thought should be done.
“And it took a while. There was some opposition to it. But we finally got everybody on board, that we’d try to clean it up collectively.”
Swanson hopes to have construction on four of the lots by the fall.
DeNeve credits Swanson, who is retired but previously worked in construction, for getting the town to where it is today, far ahead of other small communities that have experienced similar fires.
“We had the right mayor for this crisis,” DeNeve said.
A bigger and tested fire department
Prophetstown Fire Chief Keith Crady recalled the day of the fire as “hectic.
“It was one of those days that I wish wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “We still talk about it at the station from time to time.”
Those talks, Crady said, often involve what firefighters could have done differently, quicker or better. He said his department now is better prepared for a large fire, having dealt with one just two blocks from the department.
“Before, you think, ‘It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen,’” Crady said. “But it can happen.”
About two months after the fire, seven new firefighters had joined the town’s volunteer department.
All seven volunteers have stayed on, and Crady said that while some of them probably are ready to fight fires, he won’t make them if they aren’t comfortable. There are plenty of jobs to do at a fire scene, he said.
Since the July 15 blaze, the Prophetstown Fire Department has responded to “three or four” other fires, Crady said, adding the department usually responds to about 11 a year, including calls in other towns for mutual aid. About 30 other departments helped fight the downtown fire.
Because the town can’t offer large financial incentives such as tax breaks, it will donate the lots, which have been appraised at about $7,000, Swanson said.
Local construction companies and suppliers have offered their services and products at a discount, DeNeve said, to ensure a quick rebuild.
The businesses that were there at the time of the fire likely won’t return. Cindy Jean’s still might rebuild, owner Cindy Eriks said, but a decision won’t be made for a while.
While the businesses that were lost weren’t bringing the town significant sales tax revenue, DeNeve said, they were reflective of the downtown and Prophetstown community.
“I know for one thing, and it’s hard to imagine, but it takes a loss before we all appreciate what we have,” he said. “I don’t know why it does, but it does.”
Prophetstown has set up a fund, “Rebuild Prophetstown Strong,” to help clean up and rebuild the downtown. Donations can be made at Farmers National Bank branches, in Prophetstown, Geneseo and Morrison, as well as at IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union locations.