Honeymoon over: Time to begin charting a new course...
By Mike Kroll
On January 2, 2007 Dane Bragg became Galesburg's newest city manager amidst a budget crisis and (soon thereafter) an election cycle that saw three of four incumbent city aldermen replaced by the voters. Even before he and his wife had time to unpack Bragg was forced to deal with the budget mess created by his predecessor and a city council that was inclined to “go with the flow” until citizens began objecting loudly.
“My new job here didn't start exactly as I expected or hoped,” observed Bragg. “But I wasn't completely blindsided either and the city council was eager to work with me to correct the situation.”
The Galesburg area economy had been struggling for some time and former city manager Gary Goddard had been avoiding hard budget issues by simply underfunding pensions, deferring maintenance and reinvestment in infrastructure and taking advantage of the city council's naivete'. Bragg won over many in town by his straightforward, no-nonsense recognition of the problems and bold suggestions that Goddard's practices cease immediately but a city council very reluctant to raise taxes made this approach difficult.
Fortunately for Bragg the city had substantial reserves of cash that could be tapped and the city council was more amenable about raising fees than taxes. Bragg essentially rejiggered Goddard's budget and delicately convinced what became a new city council in May to readdress city priorities. Bragg made the best of his honeymoon but spent most of it correcting the mistakes of his predecessor rather than beginning the process of establishing his own mark on Galesburg.
As the summer of 2007 arrived Bragg and the city council began dealing with problems in the water division with particular attention to an aging and deteriorating infrastructure. Coupled with a rate structure that never adequately accounted for necessary system maintenance much less future capital improvements and was exceedingly generous to the largest water users the city staff had to devise a way to begin addressing the issue before we experienced a catastrophic failure. Bragg convinced the city council to begin moving on an issue that had simmered too long and sold them on both selling bonds to fund necessary improvements and accelerating the process of adjusting water rates to meet the system's financial needs.
“We had to recognize the critical nature of addressing water system problems and begin prioritizing the steps necessary to correct them. Clearly it made sense to work from Oquawka toward Galesburg. The deterioration of the pipeline was in large part due to over chlorination at Oquawka and our filtration system in Galesburg needed to be replaced,” explained Bragg. Building a new treatment plant at Oquawka was an obvious first step as it would help eliminate further deterioration of the pipeline by reducing the concentration of chlorine in the water sent to Galesburg. The next step will be to address paralleling the most damaged area of pipeline with new pipeline thereby permitting repair of the damaged old pipeline. This is part of a longterm process of paralleling the entire pipeline and creating redundancy in the system's most critical link.
Another long simmering local issue that was inherited by Bragg was that of neighborhood revitalization. Neighborhood groups had been complaining to the city for years about abandoned properties allowed to decay, absentee landlords who rented deteriorating homes to irresponsible tenants who merely hastened the deterioration process and even own-occupied properties that had become blights on their neighborhood. Some city council members, led by Alderman Wayne Allen, had pushed for more and higher fines and penalties and greater effort devoted to demolition of the worst properties. The city had stepped up the inspections effort and both the number and cost of demolitions rose. In an interview last year Bragg lamented on what he saw as an over reliance on punitive actions in this area. He wondered what kinds of incentives the city might be able to offer that would lead to fewer such problems. A reasonable response but Allen and this city council apparently prefers the stick to the carrot. In any event the problems and associated costs continue.
During formation of the 2008 city budget Bragg had his first opportunity to assert his vision for Galesburg but instead he attempted to induce the city council into formulating their own goals and objectives and initiatives for 2008. Not surprisingly the city council failed miserably to provide direction at special work sessions held for this purpose forcing Bragg and his staff to drag aldermen through the goal setting process. Council members universally applauded Bragg for his openness and candor throughout the painful process as they ended up ranking repair of the water system as top priority closely followed by improving parks and recreation programs and facilities.
Bragg and mayor Gary Smith made it clear during these discussions that whatever initiatives the city council were to choose for 2008 and beyond they must also designate a funding source so as to avoid repeating the budget disaster of 2007. For the water system this was relatively straightforward but to merge parks and recreation into a new stand alone department with the necessary funding to permit the required capital improvements was going to require some kind of new revenues. Here is were fear of taxation reared its head but ultimately the city council was nearly unanimous in supporting an expanded telecommunications tax as a funding source. It wasn't until the eleventh hour that Allen led a successful effort to scuttle the tax increase following limited constituent complaints.
Bragg undoubtedly learned a valuable lesson after this experience but he is too politically astute to publicly say what that lesson was. Nevertheless he is approaching yet another budget process and the Galesburg economy remains in the crapper as the city faces most of the same problems they faced a year ago. Even the apparent unanimity of direction on the water system improvements was questioned by some city council members when they were asked to approve construction of the new $17.5 million treatment plant in Oquawka.
Fifteen months into his new Galesburg job and I asked Bragg where he finds himself.
“I have a very different feeling than I had one year ago. I feel much more comfortable in general but more realistic in my expectations as well. After more than a year of addressing problems thrust upon me I am looking forward to the opportunity to begin some of my own initiatives.”
What does Bragg see as his opportunity to help direct Galesburg's future?
“No question, there are a lot of competing issues facing the city right now,” answered Bragg. “Many of the challenges we began addressing last year will continue to be a city focus for years to come such as the water system. It will be my job to continue to see these important projects through but they are agendas I have inherited. We are also in a position of limited available resources to devote to new projects or initiatives so we must be very selective. I believe we will be spending a lot of time on issues of downtown and the Main Street corridor.”
The city hired consultants to help develop a plan for downtown revitalization and it is still early in this process. As part of this project the city has begun the process of expanding or adding additional Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Zone coverage over the present downtown area and beyond.
Bragg explained, “We need to develop a realistic vision for what downtown Galesburg can become and, just as importantly, what it will not become. Downtown is unlikely to ever return as the retail center of the city but retail will continue to be part of the downtown mix. A reinvigorated downtown Galesburg will represent a mix of specialty retail, office, entertainment and culture-- potentially with a little more residential use thrown in as well. We will need to make some hard decisions but to a very large extent exactly how downtown develops is really up to the businesses and individuals who own the downtown properties. As a city we can help coordinate, plan and encourage but private investment will be critical to the success of downtown. Right now the low income generated by downtown properties doesn't support or encourage much additional investment and the age of many downtown buildings make them exceedingly expensive to renovate to modern standards. This will be a major challenge.”
Many in Galesburg are placing a great deal of faith in the potential of the National Railroad Hall of Fame eventually being constructed downtown and attracting sizable numbers of visitors. The anticipated 160,000 annual visitors to this attraction would be a major boost to downtown if it ever materializes. For its part organizers of the Hall of Fame are counting upon substantial amounts of funding from the soon to be established TIF district to help them reach their revised $30 million fund raising goal. But if millions of TIF dollars go to the Hall of Fame how much would be left to fund maintenance and infrastructure needs of the greater downtown? Just one example is the sorry state of the present public parking lots in downtown.
“There is no question that the present downtown parking lots are anything but inviting to use,” admitted Bragg. “We encountered a similar situation in Decatur and found that by spending comparatively modest amounts to redo some downtown parking lots made a difference in public use of the downtown area. Another discussion we must have as a community is a realistic evaluation of the difference between a building that is simply old and an old building worth investment to preserve and bring up to modern code. It is also important that we realize that regular replacement of building stock is a sign of economic vitality.”
Bragg went on to say that what we do not want is to see old buildings fall into disuse and deteriorate or merely be removed and not replaced. Just as too many demolitions in residential neighborhoods is itself a form of blight so too in distressed downtowns. “We certainly don't need any more parking lots fronting Main Street,” commented Bragg. “We really need to focus on filling in the gaps with new buildings that are designed to fit the context of an urban downtown. And we need to attract new tenants to the downtown area that are willing to pay somewhat higher rents in properly designed or remodeled downtown spaces.”
When questioned about what he expects from consultant Massie Massie & Associates Bragg is very optimistic. :I have worked closely with Massie before and always felt that they delivered great value compared to many consultants. They will be sensitive to our needs as well as resources and realistic in what they propose. It remains very early in the process but I have high hopes that they will help us make the necessary changes in the downtown area.”
While there is no question that Galesburg's downtown is in need of revitalization this is no small endeavor and frankly a surprisingly risky one for Bragg to claim as his own. But Bragg is youthful and ambitious and his background is in economic development. Another question is if the downtown project is eventually a success will this occur while Bragg is still in town to see it?