MORRIS – Morris’ downtown has shopping and food, and in the warmer months it has festivals and cruise nights and car shows on almost every weekend.
But what about attractions that regularly draw people in? John Mathias opened the Morris Chop Shop 2½ years ago and still has some ideas.
As part of a two-week series, the Morris Herald-News looked into the opportunities across Grundy County for work and how the area not only is attracting new talent, but also retaining the talent already here.
Mathias opened the Morris Chop Shop in 2015 after the success of his previous restaurant.
“We always loved downtown Morris,” he said.
His previous restaurant, Big Fish Grill in Wilmington, sold a lot of steaks, and he thought a steakhouse in Morris would do well. He said as much food as possible is locally sourced – to go with Morris’ farming heritage. Although he is a business owner, he said he is not comfortable wearing a suit and tie.
“I am in chef whites most of the time,” he said. “It’s my first love, and it’s hard for me not to get involved in the kitchen. ... I love to jump in and get dirty.”
Food is part of everyone’s life, Mathias said. It’s used to celebrate happy occasions or as part of coping with sad occasions.
With three restaurants across the area and a catering business as well, all run out of corporate offices in Morris, he said he keeps busy. But he also would like to see Morris grow and improve, and thinks it has potential.
“I’m not a politician; I don’t have any degree. But I know from running businesses, not only my own, other peoples, in other communities,” he said.
“I watched Naperville grow up.”
Right now, people will come to Morris for the festivals, he said. Corn Fest, the Liberty Arts Festival, cruise nights. But those are one-off events. Attractions that bring people over and over again and drive people into the businesses are what downtown needs to grow.
Morris looks to bring in those businesses for downtown. Through zoning and tax increment financing districts, the downtown area and other commercial corridors throughout the city look to bring in the desired businesses for the location.
But it is about more than work. It’s about how we spend our time when off the clock, as well. More options will breed more growth, Mathias said.
“I think downtown Morris is a great, regular downtown. It’s historic on the river, but it lacks life,” he said. “It went through economic tough times, like everyone else did, but you need to take chances. Businesses need to take chances.
“As a resident, I think having options and choices of different styles of food is fun. It brings a different demographic, it brings more tourism, it helps support other businesses in the area.”
Having many competing businesses, like restaurants, Mathias said, is better for all of them. The situation it creates would lead to a greater pool of customers to keep the doors open, and a great pool of talent to work in the businesses. Once an area becomes known for it, he said the city would become the destination.
“They’ll drive in and not know what they’re going to eat,” he said. “And they don’t need to know, they’ll just come to Morris.”
Beyond restaurants, however, Mathias said he would like to see Morris have other cultural attractions in the city.
“I’d like to see a theater,” he said.
“A comedy place. ... Something that brings people from distances to see Morris. Once we get them downtown, then they can spread out and filter into the businesses.”
A variety of activities would lead to the city becoming a greater draw for not just visitors, but for business and for residents.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mathias said. “People come because they want to live there, then there’s more jobs there.”
Aside from downtown, Morris has location on its side as a reason to grow. Proximity to the Illinois River and major interstates and railways have led to it being looked at as a location for warehouses and distribution facilities. It is one of the locations being considered for a warehouse that would bring 600 jobs.
But bigger is not always better, and the growth needs to be controlled.
Mathias used Naperville as an example of showing that while growth can be good, too much can squeeze out the local businesses. As rent becomes more expensive, only larger businesses or chains can afford to open in the area. Soon it loses what made it unique in the first place.