Liberal Chicago transplant brings development moxie to Savanna as new mayor in Trump country
By Ted Cox
SAVANNA — Until only recently, Chris Lain never expected to be mayor of Savanna.
“If you had told me six years ago, five years ago, that this is where I’d be,” he said, sitting down for a chat in his Savanna Marketplace store, “I would have thought you were crazy. But I guess the last couple years I could’ve seen this progression happening. I love it.
“I love the town and the shop and the people and being able to give back and to help,” Lain added.
His political career followed just as rapidly and just as rationally, step by step, as his decision to move to the Mississippi River town 2 1/2 hours directly west of Chicago four years ago, along with his partner, Jube Manderico. They’d previously lived in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. “We came out here for a long weekend and were looking for a cabin to stay in, came across a cabin in Savanna, Ill., came out for a four-day weekend over New Year’s,” he recalled. “The next weekend we were back looking at houses, and the next month we closed on a home. It was supposed to be a vacation home — we were coming out from the North Side of Chicago working on it on the weekends — and got really tired of driving back.”
Four months later, they were full-time Savanna residents. They opened businesses, starting with the Savanna Marketplace, a converted pharmacy at 321 Main St. with its original 1901 pressed-tin ceiling, as well as a vintage soda fountain installed in the ‘30s. (Think of Mr. Gower’s in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” repurposed for riverfront tourism, with the soda fountain converted to a coffee bar.) The Blue Bedroom Inn, a delightfully cozy four-room bed & breakfast directly above the Marketplace, followed. Lain joined the Lion’s Club, then the Chamber of Commerce, becoming president of that body, then was elected mayor a year ago in a landslide over three local opponents.
“This is a town that did go to Trump, and then in April turned around and elected a gay liberal from Chicago,” Lain said.
Perhaps it would be going too far to call Savanna “Trump Country,” but the fact is none of the polarizing issues one associates with the last presidential campaign mattered in the local election. Maybe what it showed is that people were dissatisfied with the status quo and looking to those who provided answers.
Lain attributed his victory to the vision he offered on how to revitalize and redevelop Savanna’s downtown and riverfront. “We focused on being business owners in the community and what we could do,” he said of the campaign he and his partner put together.
“I saw a ton of opportunity in this area, and I saw it moving in the right direction,” Lain said. “I saw the opportunity that we need to take what we started doing and really accelerate it. … It was kind of a natural progression.”
Savanna’s downtown is a tax-increment-financing district as well as an enterprise zone, and Lain was familiar with those development devices in part from his time working as a Bed, Bath & Beyond store manager in Chicago. “For me, the biggest part of it is working with business owners and educating them on how they can utilize this as a tool and working with them to go through the steps so they can get (projects) approved,” Lain said. For instance, when the Times Movie Theater was threatened with obsolescence, the town helped it get a grant to convert to digital projection.
At the same time, Lain prioritized repairing cracked sidewalks, repainting crosswalks and parking spaces, and installing new planters and trash cans along the public way. “We’re a tourism-driven downtown,” he said. “We want to be a place, when people drive through, that they see it and say, ‘This is a cute town. We’ve got to stop.’
“Last summer we had five businesses open on Main Street, and that’s really exciting,” Lain said, adding that previously “we were seeing them close instead of open.”
Savanna was founded in the 1820s by settlers spilling over from the lead-mining boomtown of Galena just to the north. Population peaked at 6,000 when it was a U.S. Army depot during World War II, but it still has 3,200 residents today.
Tourism remains its main draw, however, with the Mississippi Palisades state park just outside town offering camping, cycling, hiking, and even rock climbing. Bald eagles are increasingly present, as are pelicans in the summer. Touting itself as “a sportsman paradise,” Savanna has a marina on the river, and it’s a popular stop for bikers touring the rolling roadways, attracted no doubt by the Hawg Dogs bar on the main drag.
Even so, Lain bemoaned a “lack of consistency” by the state Office of Tourism for its failure to tout the vitality of the river towns. “I would like to see more of these areas out along the Mississippi promoted rather than just the City of Chicago,” he said. “It’s just so different from anywhere else in the state.”
Lain has also made it a mission to attract and retain families, in part by focusing on education, but was thwarted by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto last year of a reform-minded funding bill that would have increased state support for Savanna’s schools. Rauner called it a “bailout” for Chicago, but Lain dismissed that criticism.
“It would also have built in a more fair funding of our schools out here,” he said. “So it was very disappointing for me.
“We ended up getting a little bit of an increase,” Lain added, with the later bill Rauner eventually did sign into law, but “then there was a decrease in federal (funding). So it really was a wash.”
Lain allowed that he sometimes misses the range of restaurant options he had in Chicago and in his old Lincoln Square neighborhood, but otherwise said he’s never looked back. “Some of the cultural things, you have to search out a little more, but they’re here,” he said. “The one little summer-stock theater we have out here is fantastic.”
He said one of the things he’s come to value most is the ability to make an actual impact that a small town offers. “There’s more of an opportunity out here to get involved and make a difference,” Lain said.
He and his partner fully sealed the deal by getting married in Savanna just last December.
“Coming from the North Side of Chicago and to be coming out as a gay couple to a small town in Illinois, you don’t know what to expect,” Lain said. “People were extremely accepting. They’ve embraced us, they’ve supported our businesses — they've elected me to be the mayor."