MOUNT MORRIS – If Jeff Bold, Molly Baker and the rest of the people with Encore! Mt. Morris have their way, this little town will become a hotbed of arts activity.
“The idea is to create a unique, rural and cultural arts destination in Northwest Illinois,” said Bold, president of Encore.
Encore! Mt. Morris began in 2016, after about 80 people got together for a visioning workshop, organized by the Mount Morris Economic Development group. The workshop included local small business owners and artists, along with outside city planners and others. With the former thriving publishing town now without that major employer, what could be done to revitalize the town and specifically the campus area?
“People were saying, ‘what is Mount Morris going to be now that we are no longer going to be a printing and publishing town? What is our future?’” Baker said.
Out of that retreat came “Encore! Mt. Morris, and the group hit the ground running.
“We are still, pretty much, a subset of economic development,” Baker said. “We are trying to make Mount Morris a rural destination for the arts, but also make Mount Morris a place where people want to live, where businesses will want to locate because employees will want to live here because there is stuff going on.”
And that is what it is all about – how to make Mount Morris an attractive place to live.
“In an Amazon world, when you live in a town of 3,000 and you can get anything overnight, what do you do to make quality of life better for people?” Bold said.
That first year, the group launched Porchfest, where musicians perform – you guessed it – on people’s porches. They modeled the event after one held in Georgia.
“You can kind of pick what you want to go see,” Bold said of the relaxed event.
The group also hosts art events in the Old Sandstone Gallery. This includes student art shows as well as art auctions. Besides special events, the gallery is open during the summer on Wednesdays from 7-9 p.m. and Fridays from 6-9 p.m.
Encore! also just hired its third summer artist in residence, who helps design and create hands-on art experiences for the community.
And of course, there is the U.S. Straw Sculpting competition, which this year runs from Aug. 7-23. Strawfest will be on Aug. 22.
The competition was held in Rochelle its first year, and Bold said Encore! wanted it for Mount Morris, where it has been held the last four years. The event draws thousands of visitors.
Baker said they were “really shocked” at the size of the crowds for the event.
“We had people morning, noon and night,” she said.
Bold said they hope to continue to grow that event.
Most of the events are free or at low cost to the community. Funding for the group comes from grants and donations. ComEd has been a strong sponsor.
Looking to the future, Baker said they are always looking for new volunteers as the group is growing. The goal of growing the local economy and making Mount Morris a great place to live are still the focus. And the future?
“Actually, you know, we’re pretty excited,” Bold said.
Please visit encoremtmorris.com for more information about the events and activities offered by the group.