New Shopping Center Planned for Belleville, Ill.

Gene Maxwell doesn't want to talk about the past.

"I'm trying to make some positive (development) here," said Maxwell, a native East St. Louisan who has sold men's, women's and children's clothes in town for the past 10 years. "Between all of the strip clubs we've got, we're trying to put something positive in the community."

On Friday, the retailer broke ground on a $312,000, 33,000-square-foot shopping center at 1500 Kings Highway. The first phase includes a 3,000-square feet store for Maxwell's G-Max's Clothing Store, located three blocks from its current site.

Phase two includes construction of as many as 10 other shops. Maxwell said he already has some tenants who have signed leases, including a 12,000-square-foot More For Less grocery store and the Washington Park Pharmacy.

H & H Construction Services Inc. of Carlinville will build the shopping center. Lea Hudson, vice president of marketing for the company, said the retail development is the first in the city in quite some time. She hopes this is the beginning of an economic rebirth in town.

"We hope this will be the first piece of it," Hudson said. "It is pretty significant. It's so nice to see."

Maxwell, Hudson and civic leaders gathered Friday morning to break ground on the strip mall. Maxwell's business consultant, Rick Jones, of Business Development Associates LLC in Washington Park, said this day has been three years in the making. He said it's been at least 25 years since anyone has broken ground in town on a new retail development.

"In a village like Washington Park ... there are no other developments of this nature," Jones said.

Maxwell has applied for a $47,000 loan from the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority's Community Development Corp. The board will meet Tuesday morning to consider his request.

Mike Lundy, president of the development authority, attended the ceremony Friday and commended Maxwell on his efforts.

"We're excited about this," Lundy said. "It's a wonderful thing for Washington Park. Someone has taken the initiative and the foresight to spend the money that he is going to spend.

"A lot of it is on Gene's shoulders because he has taken the initiative and invested in the community that he loves and wants to see turned around. I think it's a great thing."

Swansea Mayor Chip Gray also was on hand. He grew up in town on 55th Street -- three blocks from the shopping center's site.

"I'm so glad to see the community coming back, again," Gray said. "It really effects me, personally."

Maxwell said he puts his faith in God before anything, but his community's strength is a close second.

"I wanted to come out there and take out the negative and create a positive," he said. "I want to show these kids that hope is still alive and show that they can do what I'm doing, too."