Six months ago a devastating explosion ripped through downtown Canton, causing damage to businesses and historical buildings.

Six months ago a devastating explosion ripped through downtown Canton, causing damage to businesses and historical buildings.


On Saturday, area residents, business owners, members of various faith communities and city and state officials gathered at Jones Park to celebrate a new beginning for the city.


Following music provided by the Salvation Army band, mistress of ceremonies Dana Smith introduced a number of speakers who reflected on the tragic events of last November and offered thanks and encouragement for those affected and those who responded.


Canton Mayor Kent McDowell noted that this event was not only an end but also a beginning, with Canton becoming “better and better” as time went on.


McDowell went on to say the response to the explosion showed Canton’s strength and resilience and that “adversity builds character.


He concluded by noting the great opportunities available in downtown Canton. “That’s what this is about.”


Before offering prayer, Pastor Greg White of the Assembly of God asked for a moment of silence while the Salvation Army band played “Amazing Grace.”


As he prayed, White noted Canton had lived up to its mission of help and support and the tragedy had made the city not “bitter but better.”


After a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” led by John Davis, Amanda Atchley of the Canton Area Chamber of Commerce, who, Smith noted, had been relentless in her efforts to meet the needs caused by the explosion, spoke.


Atchley told the crowd it was fitting to join together to honor those who had been impacted by the explosion and to thank all those who helped clean up after the explosion. She listed a number of the people and agencies which helped and apologized to anyone she left out.


Atchley also spoke about the future of the Opera Building. In what she termed a difficult decision, Atchley said studies have concluded the building could not be renovated. She acknowledged this decision was emotional and painful.


At the same time, Atchley said “every ending can also be a new beginning,” and said ideas were already in the works about how to develop the property.


Atchley also noted the two business which had not yet reopened, Shandi’s and Scrapbook Dreams, both said they were planning to return as soon as possible.


“I have never been prouder to be a member of this community,” Atchley said. “We have a way to go but I want you to see how far we have come. We will always remain ‘Canton Strong.’”


Missy Towery, who helped set up the disaster relief fund, explained how the project was set up and the guidelines it had to follow.


She noted a total of $132,386.84 had been collected and 44 applicants had received grants. The top two donors to the fund were Cook and Wells Fargo, she said.


Towery also asked the crowd to thank the families of the responders who helped with the cleanup efforts and the families of the business owners affected for their support.


A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (IL-17) read a letter from the Congresswoman expressing her appreciation for the inspiring and remarkable way the community had revitalized the downtown area.


State Senator Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) also called the community response to the explosion inspiring, adding “that’s what good people do.”


Koehler asked for thoughts and prayers for the family who lost a loved one and Ameren personnel who had lost a co-worker. He also commented that while buildings may be important, the people and spirit of a community were more important.


State Representative Mike Unes (R-91st District) told the crowd a community was not defined by a tragedy but how it responded to that tragedy, adding how Canton responded to the explosion would be talked about for generations.


Unes contrasted his memories of the destruction he saw the night of the explosion with the improvement he saw during the reopening and reflected on the time and energy need for that work to be accomplished.


“This is truly a day to reflect, give thanks and celebrate,” Unes said. “I am proud of all of you and you should be proud of yourselves.”


Atchley announced the winners of two $120 gift cards to Canton businesses and urged the crowd to go into downtown businesses and take advantage of rides given by the 40 et 8 Voiture locomotive.


Following the program, Senator Koehler and Representative Unes took part in a ribbon cutting ceremony which officially marked the reopening of the downtown Canton area.