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GRAFTON — Almost any discussion about the past, present or future of Grafton seems to include a reference to "what happened in 1993."

That's when one of the worst floods in U.S. history kept the tourist town's riverfront underwater for seven months, destroying homes and businesses and devastating the local economy.

The city has been trying to recover ever since, and in many ways, it has succeeded. Visitors pack restaurants, bars, gift shops and ice cream parlors on summer weekends. It's also busy in the fall, when colors burst from trees along limestone bluffs.

"It's all about Mother Nature," said real-estate agent Stan Gula, 70. "When you drive up the Great River Road and you get here, you're a whole different person. It just makes you feel good."

Tourism aside, Grafton's population hasn't fully rebounded from the big flood. The city had 626 residents in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's well below its 918 residents in 1990.

In the past five years, officials have stepped up efforts to promote Grafton Hills, a subdivision that the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped establish on the bluff to keep residents high and dry.

Essentially, the city is giving away lots to people willing to build homes on them through a rebate program.

One of its biggest cheerleaders is Director of Hospitality Rod Jackson, 63. He rattles off a list of community perks and amenities, ranging from Pere Marquette State Park to Grafton Winery to Raging Rivers WaterPark.

"It's like living in a mini-resort," Jackson said. "We have one of only 22 five-anchor marinas in the United States."

Water problems part of business

Grafton is at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, 50 miles northwest of Belleville. It's the oldest city in Jersey County, platted in 1836. Early residents worked as commercial fishermen or quarry laborers. The Loading Dock bar and restaurant used to be a boat factory.

Flooding is common in lower Grafton after heavy spring rains, and that has prompted FEMA to buy and demolish at-risk homes along the riverfront. But Main Street is still lined with shops, eateries and lodging, some housed in quaint, 19th century limestone structures. Water problems are just part of doing business.

More than 50 buildings were damaged by severe flooding in 2019, when the Mississippi crested just a few feet shy of the 1993 record, wiping out that summer's tourist season.

Grafton Hills is only about a mile up the bluff, but it seems like a world away.

Winding streets with cul-de-sacs are named after birds, including Blue Heron Lane and Cardinal Court. The subdivision has an elementary school and park. Most of the 146 lots already have homes on them. Several are under construction.

The city owns 26 lots that are listed for sale and part of the land giveaway.

"They vary (in size and shape), but they're about a third of an acre," said Gula, who handles listings through Dream Home Realty Centre in Wood River. "Some of them are flatter. Some of them have woods."

Here's how the rebate program works: People must initially pay $5,000 per lot, but the money is refunded if they build a home within three years.

"If you don't build a home within three years, the city has to buy (the lot) back for $4,000, so you lose $1,000," said Mayor Michael Morrow, noting the deadline was extended from two to three years due to complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

'Loving and caring community'

Morrow, 70, is a retired colonel with U.S. Central Command and former business consultant and aviation company president. He moved to Grafton in 2007 after meeting his future wife, a St. Louis resident who owned a vacation home in the city.

Morrow defeated incumbent Grafton Mayor Rick Eberlin in the April election, running on a platform of economic renewal.

One of the points Morrow makes when promoting the idea of living in Grafton is that people are friendly and generous.

Third time’s the charm? After one month and three union votes, 10,000 John Deere employees are returning to work with a new contract that will deliver 10% raises immediately.

Morrow turns over his salary to the police department, as does City Attorney Will MIller. Jackson, a retired teacher, volunteers as director of hospitality. Other residents have donated money for municipal expenses, ranging from Christmas lights to park facilities.

"This is such a loving and caring community," Morrow said. "The residents ... They're good people. They look out for each other."

COVID-19 has dealt a blow to the tourist trade in Grafton, but officials suspect it may help them increase population in the long run. Society has figured out ways for more employees to work remotely, instead of having to report to offices in metropolitan areas.

When Grafton Hills first opened in the 1990s, residential lots sold for $15,000 to $22,000, according to Gula. Today, a couple of privately owned ones are still listed at $17,000.

Jackson, who has lived in the subdivision for two years, sees the city's land giveaway as a bargain.

Jackson and his wife can see the Mississippi River from their backyard in the winter and hear steamboat music from cruise ships. Deer and wild turkeys are frequent visitors.

"We have the best of both worlds," Jackson said. "We have access to all the resort amenities, but we have the gift of privacy and space."

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