Clay Johnson, City Administrator at the City of Lincoln, is a wanderer. He was born in rural Western Kentucky and went to college at the University of Kentucky. He then moved to Bloomington, Indiana to pursue his Master’s degree in Public Administration. He soon moved to Munster, Indiana and took a position as Assistant to the Town Manager, then Assistant Town Manager. After four and a half years in Munster, he moved to his current position as City Administrator at the City of Lincoln.
The City of Lincoln’s namesake, Abraham Lincoln, made an incredibly similar migration to Lincoln, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky and moved to Perry County, Indiana, when he was 8 years old. Making his way through New Salem, Springfield, and other county seats, Lincoln found himself platting and assisting in the laying of a new railroad, over which the future City of Lincoln would be founded.
According to tradition, Lincoln was asked to participate in the naming ceremony of the new city and christened the town by squeezing watermelon juice onto the ground. Other proprietors pushed to name the new town “Lincoln” after Abraham Lincoln, and succeeded, making Lincoln the first city to be named after Abraham Lincoln before he became president. After a historical presidency leading the country through a Civil War and modernizing the economy, President Lincoln made his final migration home on a funeral train. Lincoln’s legendary funeral train passed through seven states and 180 cities, including through the very tracks he helped lay in Lincoln, IL.
Today, The City of Lincoln is supported by the historical tourism, commercial retail and logistics industries. Hundreds of modern wanderers visit the city each year in search of the same beautiful scenery and small-town living that Abraham Lincoln, Langston Hughes, and Route 66 travelers experienced during their stay. Some popular destinations in Lincoln include the Lincoln Christening Scene, the Historic Downtown District, and the Langston Hughes Poem Marker.
Lincoln is also vying to become a strategic location from which businesses can launch their logistics initiatives. Sitting on I-55 (previously Route 66), and the ending point for Illinois Route 121, The City of Lincoln is centered between the four large metros of Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington, and Decatur. The City of Lincoln is currently planning its position as a stop on Illinois’ upcoming high-speed rail system between Chicago and St. Louis. Clay Johnson believes that Lincoln’s location will be crucial to the city’s economy.
“In this age of logistics and warehouse distribution, I think our location is an asset to be noticed,” says Johnson.
With popular historic destinations and easily accessible routes to the nation’s largest highways and railways, it’s almost as if the City of Lincoln were built for wanderers and travelers. But Johnson’s most recent problem has been getting people to settle down there. In Lincoln and in the State of Illinois, more people are leaving than moving in- which makes it hard to attract business to the community.
“I think one of the challenges that we face is a declining population in the community and the state. It’s hard to attract new and growing businesses to our community. Locally, we need to improve our workforce to attract the high-end distributers that I think would thrive here. We have to find good, high-quality jobs for our residents so we can in turn attract more businesses to our community,” says Johnson.
Johnson’s plans to attract more residents to the city include continuing the revitalization of the Historic Downtown District through streetscape and other aesthetic improvements. Current residents already enjoy a growing commercial district and popular local sports, including wrestling, basketball, and an annual soccer tournament called the Route 66 Shootout.
“I think that there is value in small-town living. There is a sense of community and comradery here that you can’t get elsewhere. We are a community that is progressive-thinking and business-friendly, and I think we’re moving the right direction. I know that Lincoln’s best days are ahead of us because there are efforts within this community to really improve,” said Johnson.
Clay Johnson’s forward-thinking ideas and small-town values are exactly what the City of Lincoln need to transform its community into a logistics hub and attract more residents. Nobody knows what Abraham Lincoln would say if he were to revisit his namesake town. However, one could speculate he would appreciate Johnson’s passion for his community and vision for the future.