President, Seminary Street Historic Commercial District
1997 Alumni Achievement Award Winner
Having graduated from Knox with a major in philosophy, Jay Matson didn't
expect to become a successful businessman.
"In 1965, my major was the antithesis of a business career," he says. "But having a liberal arts foundation, which taught me how to explore ideas, has been a tremendous asset. My Knox education encouraged me to be adaptable."
In the late seventies, the opening of a new mall in Galesburg drew more and more businesses away from Galesburg's downtown. Many downtown businesses suffered, including the Calico Cat, a popular retail shop on Seminary Street owned by Jay and his wife, Mary. Instead of closing or relocating, the Matsons took a risk -- they decided not only to stay on Seminary Street but also to open several small businesses and introduce new culinary offerings into the community.
"We asked ourselves, 'How do we attract people to Seminary Street?'" says Matson. "From our travels, we knew that specialty restaurants attracted us to far-flung neighborhoods, so we felt that we could use the same strategy to bring customers to a side street in Galesburg."
In 1977, Jay and Mary, together with a group of local partners and the backing of a local bank, purchased more than a dozen neglected older buildings and began restoring them one by one. Within a year, they opened Lullaby Dad's Thirst Parlor (now home to Chez Willy's), the Landmark Café & Creperie and the Packinghouse Dining Company -- still among Galesburg’' most popular restaurants. The street also became an incubator for other small independent businesses.
Today, Seminary Street, officially known as the Seminary Street Historic Commercial District, is one of the most successful small specialty districts in the Midwest and arguably Galesburg’s leading tourist attraction. It is three-blocks long and home to 30 independently owned businesses, renovated loft apartments, and two museums -- the Galesburg Railroad Museum and Discovery Depot Children’s Museum. It has been featured in Midwest Living, the Chicago Tribune, and Gourmet and has won "Best of State" awards from the annual Illinois Governor's Conference on Tourism.
Seminary Street also became a role model for other towns. In 1978, Galesburg was one of three communities selected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to participate in its original "Main Street" pilot project. The Trust's agenda -- to encourage downtown economic development within the context of historic preservation -- fit perfectly with Seminary Street’s mission. "Much of what evolved to become the template for the 'Main Street' approach originated here with the Galesburg Downtown Council. The Main Street program has grown to serve more than 1,600 cities across the country," says Matson.
Although it is not unusual now to find shopping districts like Seminary Street in towns across the Midwest, the concept behind Seminary Street was innovative for its time. And Matson, who received a 1997 Alumni Achievement Award from Knox in honor of his accomplishments, believes that opportunities for Galesburg will continue to evolve from new ideas and new approaches to business. "Galesburg will continue to be recreated and sustained by innovation. It's the future," he says.
As chairman of the National Railroad Hall of Fame, Matson is again at the forefront of Galesburg’s tourism development. He is especially excited about the Hall of Fame and a likely museum affiliation with the Smithsonian. He believes it will help Galesburg recover from the recent loss of employment from the Maytag and Butler Manufacturing plant closings. "The Hall of Fame is a $60 million project that has the potential to draw people from more than 500 miles away," he says. "It will change the nature of Galesburg."