Reminiscing is not a vision for the future

 

by Mike Kroll

 

Celebrating our community's past through selective positive recollections is not the path to Galesburg's brighter future. When Register-Mail editor Tom Martin began the on-going series of brief op-ed pieces entitled “Galesburg's Tomorrow” he said he wanted to solicit columns from local people and their visions of Galesburg's future. A number of people have already replied and some have had creative and interesting ideas but far too many merely lament the passage of time and the changes it has wrought on our city. Time alone has not led Galesburg to the dilemma we now face.

An absence of leadership and vision on the part of our local leaders has resulted in this community's inability and unwillingness to adapt to a changing world. As you should have learned in biology the failure of a species to adapt to a changing environment typically leads to the extinction of that species. If we, the current residents of the greater Galesburg area, do not stop right now and take realistic stock of our situation, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our community as compared to others and marshal the necessary resources and community will to make the changes necessary Galesburg's future is in grave doubt.

What worked for Galesburg in the past, a large blue-collar work force doing low skilled manufacturing and assembly jobs for middle-class pay is not working now and the prospects of succeeding in this approach in the future are non-existent. Our own demands for lower priced consumer goods and the ample supply of cheap, unskilled labor overseas coupled with advances in the shipment of goods cost Galesburg and America nearly all of those jobs and they will not return.

Countries like Mexico and China  have large numbers of people who can be trained to do these same jobs for a fraction of the cost of American workers and even with the extra expense of international shipment these goods can be sold in America or Europe at lower cost. The Japanese and Europeans were quicker to recognize this and have been making adjustments to their economies. Other areas of the United States have recognized the changing world economy and adapted but Galesburg, like much of the Midwest has been blissfully unaware of the world changing around us and too many continue to be resistant to implementing changes that will permit us to adapt as required.

Our economic development officials only very recently publicly acknowledged that labor-intensive, low-skilled manufacturing or assembly are unlikely to return to the Galesburg area yet their business attraction effort has barely adapted to reflect this observation. Instead, they now want to focus on warehousing despite the fact that it produces far fewer jobs at lower rates of pay and is far more volatile to a changing national or world economy. They have merely supplemented one failing strategy for a slightly different and less attractive one.

If manufacturing is ever going to return to the Galesburg area it is going to require a smaller number of highly skilled production employees that don't call Galesburg home today. If such a manufacturer were looking to relocate to somewhere there are plenty of other communities with an available, educated work force we do not possess (That is why Pella Windows located in Macomb). For such an enterprise to come to Galesburg the managers must presume that the requisite number of qualified employees will see the opportunity and come remedy our deficit-- or they can simply choose to go to a community that already possesses the necessary work force. What would you do?

The only way that manufacturing will return to the Galesburg area in the near future is if it is initiated right here and the result of local investment. By virtual necessity it most likely will  need to start out small and hope to grow. This strategy requires that area people with capital and business savvy take the risk to invest in creating new businesses in the Galesburg area. There are relatively few people who have the requisite resources to make such a venture go but such people do exist and we must find a way to entice them to participate.

People with great ideas are often not the people with available capital or business acumen, that is why venture capitalists exist. If we want this strategy to work for Galesburg we need to identify good business idea and local capitalists and put them together for the good of the community. Local area bankers have a good idea about who has the capital and they can participate by planting seeds in fertile investor fields. Finding those great business ideas is a more difficult task but one in which we can all participate. One direction we must not ignore is potential new products from agricultural products that could be grown in western Illinois alongside corn and soybeans.

In recent years many people have jumped on the tourism wagon as the solution to our economic development challenges. That is why there is so much excitement about the potential for the National Railroad Hall of Fame but this is misplaced optimism. While tourism is good for Galesburg and will contribute directly to our local economy proponents have grossly inflated the estimated economic impact while simultaneously downplaying the on-going costs of maintaining the attractions. Nationally very few museums come close to breaking even with their operational costs much less covering facility maintenance and exhibit updating. In fact, most museums ans related tourist attractions only survive due to massive continual fund raising or tax payer subsidies.

While building modern manufacturing employment will take much more time Galesburg is well sited to become a non-urban, non-suburban oasis for white collar professionals who work in small satellite offices or from home. Generally this is the new American middle-class and is composed of the very demographics Galesburg most lacks: young-to-middle-aged, college-educated professionals with families. Reasonable expenses in tourism can help here by attracting potential new residents to visit our community and see what may be a better way of life for their family.

Living in the big city is fun and exciting when you have just graduated from college, want to live the fast life and still possess the energy to pursue it. But we all get older and most of us eventually pair-up desiring to raise a family and it soon becomes apparent that those same characteristics of the city that so attracted us just a few years ago may not be optimum for raising our kids. Small town life with good city services and reasonable amenities, as well as easy and convenient access back to the big city as necessary, suddenly becomes an attractive alternative. Bundle in a lower cost of living, slower pace and friendlier neighbors  and pretty soon you can make a strong argument to relocate to a community a lot like Galesburg.

A small influx of such people has already begun as a mere trickle to Galesburg and we can increase that flow by making some wise choices about how we run this community. So far most of these new residents are work-from-home professionals and this is the group we should focus on up front. It will take time and the correction of a number of local deficiencies before we can successfully begin attracting those satellite offices.

If Galesburg is going to attract these potential new residents then we need to put our best foot forward by being attractive as they enter the community. The East Main Street I-74 exit continues to be an eyesore and the Main Street corridor needs a lot of attention. Now that the city has created the expanded TIF encompassing East Main and all of downtown we need to assure that this money funds a variety of public projects rather than merely becoming a piggy bank for the NRRHoF.

Contrary to the fond remembrances of many, this cleanup of downtown and East Main Street need not return these areas to a nineteenth century motif. The facades of downtown buildings should be addressed in ways that reflect each building's original architecture and we should celebrate the diversity of building styles and ages. We need to work fast to ensure that commercial development along Main Street doesn't reflect all the same mistakes that were made on Henderson Street. Galesburg needs an improved commercial development code that bans the commercial use of ill-suited residential structures, enforces setbacks from the street, limits driveway entrances and buries all utilities from the outset. We can't do all this at once but we need to get started immediately before it is too late and city officials need to have the political courage to risk the necessary funds and not compromise on a development plan in the face of opposition.

Good schools are a must and while ours aren't bad they can use some work. We need to spend more effort and resources on educational outcomes and maximizing the potential of the kids that are here today if we expect to attract these more demanding families. Our schools need to learn how to adapt to the individual needs of our kids rather than merely taking the brightest kids for granted while shuffling the poorest performers out of school or off to a alternative warehouse school. No child left behind has been worse than a failure, it has set our schools and our children back. Math and reading are important, but so are science, history, geography, writing and the arts.

We should also pursue year around schools as an option and organized summer day camps for pre-high school age children that combine outdoor activities with remedial education opportunities and provide day-long supervision to help keep kids out of trouble. Such a program would create job opportunities for high school and college students under the direction of a cadre of adult leaders. This should be a joint program between the city, the schools and other community agencies with the goal of providing an affordable and safe place for kids of working parents who can't otherwise afford to properly supervise their kids.

If Carl Sandburg College is destined to continue having the highest tuition of any community college in Illinois it will need to focus on delivering real value, particularly with regard to vocational training matched to real-world employment opportunities available in western Illinois. Training people for jobs that simply don't exist around here is counter productive Meanwhile, focusing on being a cheaper first two-year alternative for students headed to a four-year college or university is unfair to both the students and this community and is not the role for which junior or community colleges were designed to fulfill.

An attractive, vibrant community with an array of housing options is also a key characteristic that we cannot yet claim on our brochure but we must begin to move in that direction. First, we need to address the many infrastructure needs of this city and make a commitment not to return to the false savings of permitting infrastructure to deteriorate to minimize current taxes and fees only to pass higher costs on to future taxpayers. Such critical infrastructure not only includes streets, sidewalks and public utilities but also better neighborhood parks and recreation programs, a larger modern library, improved public transit and a program to begin the process of converting all existing over-head utilities to underground utilities whenever they are upgraded resulting in a cleaner more attractive city. It was a major failure of leadership and vision to permit the utility lines along Henderson Street to remain above ground and as we redevelop the Main Street corridor this mistake must not be repeated.

We need to create (and enforce) stringent rental property requirements and licensing that force slumlords out of business and reward responsible landlords with a fair return on safe and attractive rental units that cover a broader spectrum of price and amenities. New housing developments must be encouraged in geographically diverse parts of town, not merely to the north, and economic and demographic diversity needs to be a citywide goal.

It is astounding to me when I see people complain of a Habitat for Humanity home going up in their neighborhood because it might help lift neighborhood property values and hence property taxes. For far too long Galesburg neighborhoods have been segregated by class and ethnicity and we must not let this practice continue. Most of the worst homes in this city are slumlord rentals and they have got to be eliminated while simultaneously we offer a helping hand to homeowners who want to cleanup of make improvements in their homes but need a helping hand. This help need not always be in the form of money but also labor pulled from community service offenders, volunteers and temporary city workers participating in a Community Improvement Program targeted to neighborhoods so that an overall visible impact can be seen.

We must recognize that downtown Galesburg will never again be the primary retail core of this community (it doesn't matter how many times we try to antique-it-up). While retail will continue to be found downtown the best future development will be in offices and businesses that cater to office workers. Rather than seeking to remodel the second stories of downtown's oldest buildings into apartments or condominiums I propose offices and professional services with shared exterior connecting walkways permitting the shared cost of elevators.

And we absolutely must mandate the installation of sprinklers in all commercial structures including remodeled downtown commercial loft spaces. This most certainly places a substantial additional cost in the development of such properties but using TIF funds to ameliorate much of this cost would be an especially worthwhile expenditure. While we're at it let's recognize that our downtown parking is both insufficient and in embarrassingly bad condition. Redoing the downtown parking lots and making downtown more attractive to pedestrians and bicyclists should be a high priority of downtown redevelopment.

Retail recruitment should not be a city function and in fact shouldn't be necessary. Retailers will come as they see opportunities in Galesburg. The city should enact a business license program where all business owners must register and pay a modest annual fee. This program should apply to commercial, industrial and even landlords and the purpose would be to provide a mechanism to foster responsible business practices. Registrants should be required to show proof of customary and reasonable insurance, demonstrate proper payment applicable taxes and fees, and to insure consumer and employee safety, competence and responsibility.

The ideas I have listed above barely scratch the surface of the many things that we can begin doing right away to move Galesburg toward a brighter future. None are quick or easy fixes and most will demand allocation of time and resources to complete. But we cannot accomplish much by continuing to do nothing more than what has led this community to where we are today. Just as in real life your personal problems aren't going to be solved by winning that huge Lotto jackpot there is no free or painless solution to the dilemma Galesburg faces today.

 

07/31/08