BY SARAH ZAUBI
Assistant News Editor
By the end of my interview with Monmouth’s new Director of Community Development Paul Schuytema, I was watching him explain a Sims-esque board game designed to help visualize the process of building and revitalizing a town. This may seem like an odd approach to revamping Monmouth, but for Schuytema it is just an extension of his diverse work background.
Schuytema graduated with an master’s of fine arts in science fiction writing, but held a variety of software-heavy jobs. After running student publications at Monmouth College and a game company in the city of Monmouth, Schuytema worked as the director of the office of creative software development with University of Illinois Extension.
“When I first moved to Monmouth after graduate school, I hated it,” Schuytema said, explaining the transition from software to government. “It was a small town and I was from Chicago. It took moving down to Dallas for three years, and trying to live in Dallas where everything is driving, with kids, to realize ‘Oh, I was wrong about Monmouth.’”
From that point Schuytema became a self-proclaimed “small town evangelist,” and made his way back to Monmouth to start a technology business. It was through the challenges of running a software company with limited small town resources (e.g. no infrastructure, no work forces, one dial-up phone connection) that he became interested in economic development in a small town.
“All along the last 10 or so years I’ve been working to evangelize Monmouth,” Schuytema explained, “because I love the small town, but also studying the challenges of running small businesses and being an entrepreneur in a small town. I’ve also been consulting with the Institute for Rural Affairs on small town economic development.”
All of this is to help revitalize the city of Monmouth, especially its downtown district. Schuytema seems optimistic about the outcome.
“I took pictures of all these buildings that people are like ‘oh this is so terrible, all the stuff that’s happening downtown,’” Schuytema said. “Then I go back through those pictures and say ‘that particular building, someone’s investing a quarter of a million dollars into, this one has architectural plans, this one’s purchased. There’s all the stuff going on that people don’t see all the time.”
Schuytema also hopes to start holding art festivals that will draw more people downtown, such as blues or art festivals. He emphasized that Monmouth has the foundation for a lot of great art and cultural events, events that are realistically within the city of Monmouth’s reach.
“Everybody is fighting for less and less resources,” he said. “The recession hit small towns last, and it’s toughest for us to get out of. So, we’re in a context that’s very challenging. The good news is Farmland’s put 50 million dollars in the plant in the last five years. They’re the biggest employer around. Look at the college. A few years ago made some changes to how it was going to recruit and grow and it’s really strong. And the fact that they’re going to build this building is a game changer.”
The connection between the health of the downtown area and Monmouth College was also a large focus for the new director.
“If you say that you put $800,000 in that building, put some really great lofts and apartments in it, some good businesses, it’ll maybe work out in the spreadsheets at $600,000. The tricky part is finding a way to fill that gap.”
What fills that gap can’t be loans, but according to Schuytema investments are the key. These could be investments from the city or even Monmouth College. If the college could invest hard cash, Schuytema explained, they could help close that gap and probably help steer some of the uses, such as studio space for art students.
For now, a wine store will be coming soon to the downtown area, as well as beautification projects and art and cultural events in the square, not to mention niche businesses.
“It’s a marathon not a sprint,” Schuytema cautioned.