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Dana Miller Leskara

Recipe For Revitalization

By Steve Dallape

“I have great memories of growing up here.”

Take one part curiosity about the world, an equal amount of hometown pride, and combine with a liberal pinch of enthusiasm and a generous helping of hard work – your end result will be someone a lot like Dana Miller Leskara.

Dana was born in Vandalia’s Fayette County Hospital, and grew up here reveling in all of the joys that life in a smaller town can bring. “I loved growing up here,” she remembers. “I had a very happy childhood, and I have great memories of growing up here.”

Dana graduated from Vandalia Community High School in 1984, and went on to Southern Illinois University–Carbondale, where she majored in Journalism, with a minor in Marketing. After college, the lure of the city was too much for her to resist and she found herself first in Saint Louis for a couple of years, after which she made the move to the Windy City of Chicago, where she would remain for nearly thirty years. It was there that her passion for good food would be ignited.

“I found myself in Chicago, where I fell in love with food and I got exposed to all of these amazing restaurants,” she says. “I started a kind of career and an education in the culinary field.” Her interest was so strong, in fact, that she went back to school and studied at what was then known as the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (later becoming le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts), earning a degree as a professional chef, with a specific interest in teaching people how to prepare restaurant-style dishes in their own homes. She taught classes at kitchenware retailer Sur La Table and at upscale department store Marshall Field’s, as well as hosting corporate team-building events.

Ask any chef, and they will tell you that access to high-quality, fresh ingredients is essential to good cooking. Similarly, most chefs live by a “local first” philosophy that prompts them to seek out ingredients from local producers whenever possible. Surprisingly, Dana found that the farmers’ markets in and around Chicago often did not offer produce and meat from nearby farms, instead opting to bring in lower-quality fare from further outside the city. “Having grown up in southern Illinois, where we all have gardens and know what it’s like to have a real tomato off the vine… I just could not find that in any of the city farmers’ markets,” she recalls. This realization prompted her to become involved with Green City Market, an organization dedicated to running a farmers’ market that offered organic, sustainably produced food that was sourced from local farmers. She originally got involved with Green City Market so that she could have access to fresh, local ingredients, but wound up serving on its board of directors and eventually as executive director for three years.

Dana’s passion for food can be boiled down to a belief that it is food that binds us all together. “Every culture in the world celebrates with food,” she states. “They celebrate birthdays, they celebrate marriages, they have some form of mourning or a wake, and it’s all revolving around traditions and food. It’s the commonality among all people – all people, everybody.”

In addition to a vibrant food and restaurant scene, Chicago is also known for its rich architectural and design history, and being immersed in and inspired by that history led Dana to pursue another of her many varied interests. “I always loved looking at properties and seeing what was going on,“ she relates. During her time in the city, she had renovated several properties in which she had personally lived. But now, she decided to take it up a notch by diving into the real estate realm, flipping properties and helping others to buy and sell – another manifestation of her creative spirit, not unlike cooking.

Soon, however, despite all the city has to offer and all of the projects and passions Dana was pouring herself into, Chicago began to lose its luster in her eyes. She began to tire of city life, and started feeling like she might be ready to move home and reclaim the comfort and peace of mind that she remembered from her childhood in Vandalia. “I just started to want the things I grew up doing,” she states.

“When I was younger and in the middle of all that fun stuff, I used to come home and visit, and I loved it here. But, when I’d go back to the city, I’d be like, ‘Okay, I’m home’,” she says. “And then, somewhere along the line, that switched.” But before committing to a permanent move away from the city, she conducted a “test run”. She sold her home in Chicago, put all of her belongings into storage, and went to stay with her mother in Vandalia for a few weeks. “I just brought my cat and what clothes I needed for summer, and I thought, ‘I’ll just see how I feel about it,’” she recalls.

The test run was a success, and the next step was to buy a small house in town, splitting her time between Vandalia and Chicago, staying with friends there when she had to travel to the city on business. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, it was in Vandalia that she chose to stay. “You couldn’t hardly leave your house at all in the city, so I sheltered in place down here, and I liked it,” she remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going back.’”

“I just love it, I love the slower pace,” she says. But, while she may be okay with a slower pace, that doesn’t mean she is ready to completely retire. She is bringing her many, varied skills and wealth of experience to bear on an exciting new project that she hopes will serve as a catalyst for the further growth and development of Vandalia. She has formed a nonprofit organization called the Vandalia Liberty Theater Foundation, with the goal of restoring and rehabilitating downtown’s Liberty Theater into a community performing arts center. And, as is typical of Dana, she is 100 percent all-in on the project. “I know that people want this to happen, so if people want it, it will happen,” she says. Projected to be a three- to five-year project, it will be her biggest rehab ever, but that doesn’t worry her. “It’s okay, what I’m really good at is pulling all the parts and pieces together, so that it gets done. I don’t always do it all myself, because I’m not a construction expert. I am an expert at connecting all the dots. I’ve been collecting dots all over, and then I pull them all together,” she explains.

Dana is pleased to see others who have returned and put their own unique stamps on the community, opening businesses and helping to revitalize the community. She sees a trend toward retirees like herself turning away from areas like Arizona and Florida, where real estate is becoming prohibitively expensive. “I really think there’s going to be a small-town renaissance,” she says, “because people want the small-town charm, the ease of the lifestyle. And, if you don’t want to go to those markets that are getting really expensive, you might want to find little communities that have something going on.”

“Vandalia is starting to have something going on,” she continues. With music events, outdoor festivals, new restaurants, a farmers’ market and more, “It’s easy to get involved here, if you want to.” And because of people like Dana and many others who are driving growth and development in the community, more and more people are getting involved. When she broke the news to her friends in Chicago that she was moving back home, they said, “You’re doing what? You’re crazy!,” she recalls.

“And now, they all love to come down and visit me,” she says, with a knowing smile.

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